My sixth historical novel of the month is Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie. It is a novel which starts in 1945 at the dropping of the second atom bomb on Nagasaki and finishes in the early part of the current century after 9/11. It is a story that includes three main historical events – the Nagasaki bomb, the partition of India and Pakistan, and the “War on Terror”. It has a number of themes but the main one is how the individual becomes merely collateral damage as Western countries play out their power struggles in other countries.
The main character is Hiroko, a Japanese woman, who has been scarred in Nagasaki both physically and mentally following the dropping of the bomb which killed her German fiancé. Following the war she travels to India to meet Konrad’s family and falls in love with an Indian Muslim man. After partition she settles in Pakistan and finally, after the death of her husband, in New York. The story follows her family and the family of her dead fiancé both of which becomes interlinked.
This is a powerfully written book filled with flawed people who are also very realistic. Every event and action during the first two thirds of the book comes to fruition in the climax at the end of the book and you see how well the author has crafted her story because it feels inevitable. It does mean, however, that the first two thirds of the book are very descriptive and slower paced and the last third is very plot heavy which doesn’t completely work.
This is a sad book. Hiroko continually has the things she loves removed from her by the actions of others. Every action has a reaction and decisions that people make and things they say often have horrendous results. In the end I felt that it was a book about Western power and privilege and its consequences for others. One of the questions in the book is how America, having seen the results of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima could then decide to drop a second bomb – why were American lives so much more important than Japanese ones ?
The descriptions of the various locations are particularly well done and the author helps us to feel the characters’ love for their own countries. The writing is beautiful and the book is very moving in places. I have read this author’s book Home Fires which I enjoyed but I feel that this was a much better book. I highly recommend it.