Kamila Shamsie’s new book, Burnt Shadows, is one of those modern novels that invite the publisher to describe it as “a sweeping epic” — a temptation that Bloomsbury Press has not resisted. It opens in Nagasaki in August, 1945; moves on to India in 1947 as The Raj is dissolving; stops off in Karachi amid Muslim-Hindu tensions in 1982-83; and concludes in post 9/11 New York and Afghanistan. Whatever criticisms you might have of the author, a lack of ambition in purpose cannot be one of them.
Burnt Shadows also invites comparison with some very good — and very popular — recent novels, which I’ll do by way of triangulation. In one corner, you have The Kite Runner and A Thousand Suns, both gripping narratives that have produced international best sellers. Another corner of the triangle is occupied by Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil, published to good reviews but somewhat smaller sales, last fall — in this book, the exploration of modern politics tends to take precedence over the narrative story. At the final corner of the triangle, I’d place David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (or his previous novel, Ghostwritten), where the sweeping narrative moves into a post-modern development of the author’s themes and complexity of structure starts to rival complexity of plot.
Burnt Shadows has elements in common with all three of those approaches; if you have read and enjoyed any of the books mentioned, you will probably want to explore this one. I would locate it somewhere between The Kite Runner and The Wasted Vigil, but it also has Mitchell overtones. I have posted both the U.K. and North American covers because they illustrate how different aspects of the novel landed with the cover designers. While both feature the “burnt shadows” of the title, the U.K. version is stylized (reflecting the political aspects of the book); the North American version shows them on the heroine’s back, a reflection of the more personal aspects of the story.
First, a very quick and admittedly thumbnail summary of a very complex and ambitious plot:
The novel opens in Nagasaki on the day that the New Bomb drops. Hiroko Tanaki is a young teacher living just outside Nagasaki, in love with a German outcast, Konrad Weiss, who is the caretaker of his English brother-in-law’s property (I warned you that the plot was complex — right from the start). The bomb falls, Konrad dies. Hiroko survives but the image of the three black cranes on her kimono is burnt into her back and will remain there (almost always hidden) for the rest of her life.
In part two, Hiroko, with no attachments in the world, makes her way in 1947 to the Delhi home of Konrad’s brother-in-law, James Burton and his German wife (Elizabeth, born Ilse), who understandably keeps those roots hidden. Hiroko has an aptitude for languages and takes up with their servant, Sajjad, who teaches her Urdu. The Raj is in the process of falling apart and the Burtons have sent their son to school in England. As Independence finally comes, Hiroko and Sajjad get married and head to Karachi to avoid the troubles, always believing they will eventually return.
Part three is set in Karachi in 1982-83 — return to India was obviously not part of the agenda. They have a son, Raza, who is starting to fall into the world of Muslim politics. Sajjad is a broken man who feels he has abandoned his roots. Hiroko is doing her best to get along. It is the longest section of the book and explores in some detail some of the global tensions that the events of part one and two have created. Shamsie also uses this section for some very effective character development, as Hiroko and Raza become the focus of the rest of her story.
It is a spoiler to say what leads to part four, so let’s just say the next section finds Hiroko in New York. Raza is now working in an American “security” firm run by the Burton’s son and spending a lot of time in Afghanistan as a contractor. Hiroko and his daughter, Kim, (who is not too happy with the CIA connections of her father) spend a lot of time together. Again it would be a spoiler to say how the book concludes — suffice to say there is quite a bit of drama.
I admit that I have always felt a reluctance to call books like this “epics”. Yes, the story is sweeping and there are a lot of characters, but somehow it seems to denigrate the Homers and Virgils of history when novels like this get that description because, good as they are, they just don’t meet the standard. JohnSelf at Asylum solved my dilemma for me recently when he introduced the concept of “widescreen” novel: “…ambitious works containing a large cast of characters, far flung geographical settings, and modern history or political issues rendered in fiction.” He was describing another book (Solo, by Rana Dasgupta) but that summary certainly applies to this work. And I also like the “widescreen” notion because it conveys the modern, cinematic scope that is so much a part of these kinds of novels — I plan on using the term frequently in the future.
Widescreen novels share a common problem and Burnt Shadows does not escape it. At a point about two-thirds of the way through the book, the author has opened up so many story lines and introduced so many characters, that it is inevitable that the rest of the book becomes a tidying-up process where all the loose ends get tied together. If you are really enrolled in the story (or the characters) this is easy to overlook, or at least accept. If you aren’t, you start to feel that you are in the reading process of treading water — in bad versions of the widescreen novel, the metaphor would be a reading version of watching paint dry.
I am personally susceptible to that latter impression, because I prefer books that leave me thinking when I turn the last page instead of feeling comfortable that the story has been neatly brought to an end. Despite that tendency, I was more than willing to let Shamsie get on with finishing her story — she introduces enough interesting people and circumstances that she deserves some critical slack.
I liked this book — those who are more inclined to strong narratives than I am will like it even more. Part of me says that it was too ambitious, which means that each part of Shamsie’s story suffers so that she can address so many elements. Another part of me admires her for making the effort and I suspect a large chunk of the reading public is going to fall into that camp. I don’t think I could face a steady diet of “widescreen” novels, but one or two a year are definitely worthwhile — for me, without a doubt, Burnt Shadows falls into that category. Booker Prize juries frequently seem attracted to one or two widescreen novels (say last year’s Sea of Poppies) — it will be interesting to see if this book attracts that attention. It is early in the prize year, but I wouldn’t rule it out.