Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie

North America

North America

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.

UK version

UK version

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.


26 Responses to “Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie”

  1. John Self Says:

    It is early in the prize year, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

    A wise decision, as Burnt Shadows has just been longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

    I read Burnt Shadows a month or so ago and thought the opening section – in Nagasaki, with Konrad and Hiroko – brilliantly done. Unfortunately I then became distracted by extracurricular business while reading the rest of it, so didn’t really give it my full attention. For that reason I decided not to write a review, unless I read it again.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: Thanks for the quick response — for others, here is a link to the 20 Orange Prize finalists. It is a long list but of those I have read, I would have a tough time choosing between Burnt Shadows and The Lost Dog as the best book. I won’t be attempting to read the whole list, but will be most interested when the short list is produced.

    I can also understand your idea of “distraction” regarding this book. One of the other characteristics of widescreen novels is that they are meant to distract you — it there are other events in your life that are already occupying that space, they become somewhat irrelevant.


  3. Trevor Says:

    And here I was getting on here to mention the longlisting, but John (as usual!) scoops first!


  4. 3m Says:

    Definitely looks like my cup of tea. Thanks for the wonderful review!


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    3m: It is a very good book — I’ve read it twice and can happily report that it is one of those books that gets better with time. It is early in the publishing year, but it is my current favorite for this year’s Man Booker (after it wins the Orange, of course). I look forward to another reread and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


  6. Lotus Reads Says:

    A very helpful review, thank you very much. Before I got to your blog I was in two minds about reading this book, you helped me make my mind up…I am going to read it!


  7. Colette Jones Says:

    I’m on page 108 and wondering whether to go on. It is reminiscent of Unsworth’s Land of Marvels in that it leaves nothing to the imagination – too much telling, which isn’t my cup of tea. I did give up on that one – this one isn’t that bad, but I’m not finding it good either.


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: While I quite liked the book, I had similar struggles (although perhaps not quite as bad) until Hiroko gets to Pakistan, when I found that some of the back story threads started to come together. I do have the sneaking suspicion that the book probably has too much story and not enough food for thought for your tastes. That can definitely be an issue with a lot of widescreen novels.


  9. Colette Jones Says:

    Kevin, did you know that Bloomsbury.com has a link to your blog? Wow!


  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I did Colette and I very much appreciate it. They publish some wonderful books and have sent this blog some very faithful visitors. And I must admit that my ego loves having me and J.K. Rowling on the same homepage. Kevin.


  11. Colette Jones Says:

    I went back to this book and finished it, but it didn’t improve for me. I found it clunky and rolled my eyes at it quite a few times. The biggest problem for me was not so much the “widescreen” aspect, but that the author told the story from not just one or two, but all points of view, which leaves nothing, and I mean nothing, to be wondered at.

    I have read two of the novels you compare it to. With the Kite Runner, I was able to wonder whether the young boy had imagined some of how his father treated and thought of him, as most children do. I disliked the film because it limited the point of view to the child being correct. Cloud Atlas left me to wonder about many things (perhaps too many, but much better than none.)

    I seem to be the only person in the world who doesn’t like Burnt Shadows, likening it in that respect to Half of a Yellow Sun, which did pretty well in its Orange Prize year. 🙂


  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: I hope I didn’t waste your time with this book and I can understand why it did not appeal to you. Sorry about that.


  13. Colette Jones Says:

    No, not at all, I was going to read it because it was hyped for the Booker, and might have given up if that were the only reason, but I am reading all of the Orange Prize shortlist as I am attending the event at Southbank with all authors the night before the prize is awarded.


  14. ronakmsoni Says:

    Great review. I usually enjoy widescreen novels but hate it when they try to use that Coetzee-ish(I don’t know who else uses it) slow voice, like ‘Sea of Poppies’. Does this?

    Also, I should inform you that ‘Moslem’ is considered derisive. It’s generally better to say ‘Muslim'(don’t ask me why, though).


  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the correction on Muslim — I think I let myself get taken back to partition and the terms I heard as a student when I was writing the review. I’ve taken the liberty of editing the review.

    Sea of Poppies was written by Amitav Ghosh, not J.M. Coetzee, and I think that is who you mean. In fact, all of his novels fit the “widescreen” definition. I like them but can understand how other readers get annoyed — Ghosh does have a very slow pace to him.


  16. ronakmsoni Says:

    You got me all wrong, man. I know Ghosh wrote ‘Sea of Poppies’. I read it(and have also read three others by him, and disagree about ‘The Calcutta Chromosome’).
    I meant that he, unlike in his earlier books, tries to use a ‘Coetzee-ish’ voice in ‘Sea of Poppies’. I really enjoyed the other three, but disliked this one for that reason; Coetzee is one of my favourite authors, but would probably not be if he wrote wide-screen novels.


  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the clarification and my apologies for my misunderstanding. I agree that Coetzee’s “precision” in his prose (for lack of a better term) is not suited to a “wide-screen” novel — I didn’t see that in Sea of Poppies but can understand it now that you point it out. I’m presuming you are not looking forward to volumes two and three of the projected trilogy.


  18. Ronak M Soni Says:

    I am waiting for the two, so that his later novels come out. I’ll probably end up reading them anyway as long as I don’t have to buy them.

    Good to see we understand each other :).

    Also, the main reason I commented: does ‘Burnt Shadows’ have that voice?


  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    It has been some months and many books since reading Burnt Shadows, Ronak, so this comes more as a memory than a concrete observation. Memory says that the book is not written in that kind of detailed, introspective voice. Shamsie has chosen to link “big” events, which restricts the detailed observations that she can make. In some ways, I think that creates a need to rush from one setting to another somewhat too quickly — which becomes a significant weakness for the novel. Without wishing to be a spoiler, I found that it became a more serious problem as the novel moved on.


  20. Ronak M Soni Says:



  21. Kerry Says:


    I was going over your archives to see how many 2010 Tournament of Books selections you had already reviewed. I recalled quite a few, but somehow forgot about this one. I enjoyed your take on the novel. I recently posted my own (laudatory) review, but see yours and your commenters’ points regarding some of the shortcomings.

    I think some of that (overly descriptive, not enough left to the imagination) is a question of taste. I generally don’t read too many “widescreen” novels if I can help it, but this one was quite good I thought. That level of detail is what you get. I thought this had more heft than, say, A Thousand Splendid Suns and, maybe, I preferred it for that reason. But Shamsie’s handling of interpersonal relationships was, I thought, outstanding. I thought the manner in which she laid her characters bare was an achievement, not (as some of your commenters seem to me to suggest) a drawback.

    Anyway, enjoyed your review, even if it took me awhile to find it.


  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: i saw your review and thought it was dead on. What has remained with me, a year after reading the book, is Shamsie’s exploration of personal relationships. I think you are quite right in finding that the “political” aspects of the book are less compelling — and I also agree that that makes the conclusion disappointing. I still think it is an excellent novel.


  23. judith Says:

    This was a book I wanted to like much more than I did. I do want the story of Hiroshima/Nagasaki kept alive…and Afghanistan and America’s fear of Muslims and class difference etc. etc. But I felt this book, although brave in its attempt, too contrived, and I never really had a strong feeling for the characters beyond almost stereotyped explanations.

    Either I read it with a cold heart, or its characterizations are more superficial than works for a really good novel. Even with “historical fiction” I want more than a run-through of history. It should be a tale that sucks me in with an understanding of real human feelings, not just a reporting of how they felt, or a use of language that causes me to go wow.

    According to all the great reviews this book has received, I fear I might suffer from a too critical and toughened heart.


  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Judith: Thanks for bringing this book back up on the comment stream. I don’t think it was a great novel (you do a good job of pointing out some of its weaknesses) but I think it was a worthwhile one.

    As for reviews, I have seen far more critical ones than raves. If any criticism is valid, I would think it would be that Shamsi’s reach exceeded her grasp.


  25. Lisa Hill Says:

    I’d agree with that, Kevin. I felt it was a very worthwhile book until it lost its way in Part 4.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      The last part did feel like the author was doing nothing but tidying up various plot lines. While I sympathized with why she did that, I would have been quite content with a more abrupt finish, even if it did leave some questions for the reader to answer.


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