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Burnt Shadows

Updated on June 18, 2019

What is the Burnt Shadows About?

I was first attracted to Burnt Shadows because of an discussion I watched with the author (included below) where she talked about what led her to write this book -- how people who survived the Nagasaki bomb were literally "tattooed" by the kimonos they were wearing.

Burnt Shadows is divided into four time periods: Nagasaki in 1945; New Dehli in 1947, Pakistan in 1982 and New York / Afghanistan 2001. I've decided to present my review in four sections based on these. I've tried not to include the bigger spoilers but there may be a few so if you haven't read the book yet and are not wanting anything to be revealed then I suggest not reading past the first section.

Overall, I will tell you that I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it.

Citation: image courtesy of Picador.

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In this section we are introduced to Konrad Weiss and Hiroko Tanaka. A couple in love in Nagasaki. Konrad is German and living as a caretaker on his brother-in-law's estate Azalea Manor who has been discarded by his half sister who wants to forget her roots; and Hiroko is a local teacher who's father is considered a "traitor" within the community. She works with Konrad part time translating letters into German. As if cultures were not enough to make these two an unlikely couple, there also is a 28 year age difference.

In this section we are introduced to each of them, the environment in which they find themselves, their family situation and their current plans to marry. The chapter ends with Hiroko trying on her mother's kimono and the bomb hitting Nagasaki.

The title for this section, "The Yet Unknowing World" is so poignant to these two characters who have no idea what catastrophe is about to befall them and the after effects to come.

I found author voice to be incredibly soulful and detailed. Normally it takes me a good fifty pages to get into a book but she had me at page thirteen. I'm looking forward to moving on to the next section.

Was there anything that stood out for you?

Kamila Shamsie Speaks about Burnt Shadows

This interview is one of the reasons I wanted to read Burnt Shadows.

The Yet Unknowing World - Nagasaki, 1945

It is two years after the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The reader is introduced to new scenery and to people who were only mentioned in passing in the first section. Specifically, Elizabeth and James Burton. Elizabeth was Konrad's half sister who we were led to believe had no interest in him. We are also introduced to an Indian man named Sajjad Ali Ashraf, a young boy at the time Konrad met him, now twenty-four, who now plays chess daily with James with dreams of someday being a lawyer.

One day Hiroko shows up on their doorstep, hair cut short and dressed in trousers, announcing she was Konrad's fiancé. James shows his true character by calling her by three different last names. They are civil to begin with but it isn't until they learn she was affected by the bomb and is truly who she says she is (through a phone reference) that they take her under their wing as a companion.

Besides losing Konrad, the bomb has left it's mark on Hiroko, "some days she could feel the dead on her back, pressing down beneath her shoulder blades with demands she could make no sense of but knew she was failing to meet." She was also suffering from the internal effects of radiation sickness which would come and go and may some day she feared shorten her life.

Early in her visit she asked to learn the local language and every day before his chess game with Mr. Burton Sajjad would tutor Hiroko in the local language of Urdu which she quickly learned. Language is not their only connection. Konrad becomes a silk ribbon between them but as time passes he too disappears until they are quite in love.

When Hiroko looks at Elizabeth she can quite clearly see a resemblance to Konrad. They're closeness becomes so natural that speaking German is an unnoticed occurrence, something Ilse hasn't done in some time.

This is an emotional section, dealing with the after effect of the bomb both physically and emotionally. Most especially for Hiroko who shares with Sajjad what she had been carrying with her the last two years: the image of her mother's kimono on her back and the death of her father. But also for Elizabeth.

Hiroko asks an important question that the reader is sure to hold in mind throughout the book, "Why did they have to do it? Why a second bomb? Even the first is beyond anything I can... but a second. You do that, and see what you've done, and then you do it again. How is that... ?"

As you can imagine from this quote it is very emotional. I teared up just writing the quote. I don't want to leave you the impression that this novel is all doom and gloom. If I had one word to describe it it would be: tender.

The last line of each chapter has spurred me on to the next although the omnipresent point of view is a bit distracting at times when even a servant in passing gives his two cents. Overall it is the best omnipresent point of view I have read in some time. I'm looking forward to the next section.

Veiled Birds - Delhi, 1947

It's thirty-five years later and Hiroko and Sajjid live in Karachi, Pakistan. After a few failed births (a side effect from the radiation) they are enjoying the life of their seventeen year old son Raza and getting ready to celebrate Sajjid's 60th birthday. Like his mother Raza has developed a passion for languages.

In this section we are introduced to an adult Henry Burton (James and Elizabeth's son) who returns the unexpectd visit on Hiroko and Sajjid ("to seek out the first person he'd ever been conscious of loving"). As an adult he goes by the name Harry instead of Henry and depending on who's voice you are reading from he may or may not work for the CIA. When he meets Raza there is an instant chemistry ("completely transfixed").

We are also briefly introduced to Harry's daughter Kim who normally lives with her mother and is visiting him in Istanbul.

Raza grows up thinking one thing about his life and friends and his community. Then learns that everyone suspects he is deformed because of his mother's experience in Nagasaki. This totally alter his self-image and he ends up befriending a poor boy who calls himself Abdullah the Afghan on the docks who leads him into a frightening world of Afghan soldiers and driving "the last Soviet out of Afghanistan".

Raza develops an alter ego with no family or past and calls him Raza Hazara. He learns the in and outs of AK-47 and teaches his comrads to speak English (something he is surprised how much he enjoys).

Each accidental step lead this incredibly emotional young man into a direction that will shatter his family in unexpected ways--even as the reader I could not predict the outcome.

Raza was raised "never to do anything of which his parents might seriously disapprove" but some how along the way he forgot.

Hiroko is still the seam that ties these sections together even though this sections works on developing Raza's character. I never felt like she was abandoned in any way. It is interesting how the author has crossed the lives of these few family for decades.

Part-Angel Warriors - Pakistan, 1982

In the final sections the offspring of Hiroko and Elizabeth continue to collide and love with another in unexpected ways showing there are more than physical scars we all must overcome -- those caused by others and those we inflict on ourselves. Hiroko continues to be seam that ties these sections together even though this section works on painting an image of the siblings. I never felt like she was abandoned in any way.

It is interesting how the author has crossed the lives of these two family for decades. Burnt Shadows is an emotional book, dealing with the social and political ramifications impressed on two families. Hiroko asks an important question early in the book that the reader is sure to hold in mind throughout the book, "Why did they have to do it? Why a second bomb? Even the first is beyond anything I can... but a second. You do that, and see what you've done, and then you do it again. How is that... ?" As you can imagine from this quote it is very emotional. I teared up just writing the quote. I don't want to leave you the impression that this novel is all doom and gloom.

If I had to describe it in one word it would be 'tender'. I found Kamila Shamsie's voice to be incredibly soulful, detailed and mature. Each chapter left me wanting to read further. I highly recommend Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows.


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