I read Burnt Shadows over a day and a bit, which is perhaps the only reason why a story stretching over half a century, traversing several continents, interlocking lives unexpectedly and peppered with momentous historical events kept me involved. It seems that a sense of race, religion, nationality, politics and geography played the all-important role in the conceptualization of the plot, with the atom bomb on Nagasaki, Partition, the invasion of Afghanistan, the Mujahideen training camps, India’s nuclear tests and 9/11 giving it a finite timeline. It is Shamsie’s attempt to write a book about our complicated times.
War-torn: Part of Shamsie’s book is set in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Bloomberg
The characters, however, become the casualty of the book, tiny as they are against the tragic backdrop of the events that shape their lives and the ambitious task undertaken by the author.
The protagonist, and the one thread of continuity through the novel, is a Japanese woman Hiroko Tanaka, whom we watch growing from a young schoolteacher in love with the dashing German Konrad Weiss on the eve of the Nagasaki bombing to an old lady, Mrs Ashraf, sharing a flat in Manhattan with her old German friend’s granddaughter Kim, sometime in 2002. The narrative gambols through Tokyo in the 1940s, to Delhi on the eve of Partition, where Hiroko travels to seek out her dead fiance’s sister Elizabeth Burton, carrying the physical scars of the bombing and a survivor’s guilt.
A series of events in New Delhi, where Hiroko lives with the Burtons in their colonial home, learning Urdu from the young and attractive young Muslim servant Sajjad Ashraf, brings the two together as unlikely lovers who overcome all hierarchies and social norms in an uncertain world and get married impulsively, and in an equally coincidental way are transported to Istanbul to ride out the Partition. At this point, you hope for some good serious storytelling and exploration of relationships, when you are fast-forwarded as it were to Karachi, which is where Mr and Mrs Ashraf live, bringing up their only son Raza Ashraf in the early 1980s, not having been allowed to come back to Delhi after Partition.
The 17-year-old Raza is dealing with his own fractured sense of identity, enlisting for a short-lived stint in a Mujahideen camp pretending to be a Hazara boy, to justify his half-Japanese appearance. Curiously enough, the Burtons’ son resurfaces in Pakistan as an American embassy official/CIA agent. This is when the pace steps up as the action shifts from Karachi to New York, with Hiroko living in with her now-divorced friend and ex-Mrs Burton, Ilse Weiss, and Raza Ashraf moving from Dubai, Miami and Afghanistan in a series of events that pull mother and son further apart. The giddying sequence of events towards the end of the book has a sense of urgency to it and the narrative ends with a touch of good and bad.
Having read all of Shamsie’s previous novels with both an Indian curiosity about a strong creative voice out of Pakistan and as an observer of young writing out of South Asia, I was somewhat disappointed with this novel. Almost in a personal vein, I wanted to love it as I had her previous books; I wanted to be involved in the lives of the characters, but I never went from being an outside observer to an insider from the prologue to the afterword.
While the storytelling and craft is intact and the novel does have some beautiful Shamsie-esque moments that draw you in, these are short-lived and exist in isolation rather than as integral building blocks in the plot. The simple evocative nature of her prose, the clarity of vision and the tenderness with which some of the episodes are rendered is remarkable. But that’s just not enough to do justice to the epic sweep of the storyline and the author’s powerful imagination.
Payal Kohli is editor-in-chief of Travel + Leisure, South Asia, and Better Homes and Gardens.
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