Sunday, August 30, 2009

Review: Burnt Shadows

Summary: Beginning on August 9, 1945, in Nagasaki, and ending in a prison cell in the US in 2002, as a man is waiting to be sent to Guantanamo Bay, Burnt Shadows is an epic narrative of love and betrayal.

Hiroko Tanaka is twenty-one and in love with the man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss. As she steps onto her veranda, wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, her world is suddenly and irrevocably altered. In the numbing aftermath of the atomic bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. In search of new beginnings, two years later, Hiroko travels to Delhi. It is there that her life will become intertwined with that of Konrad's half sister, Elizabeth, her husband, James Burton, and their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from whom she starts to learn Urdu.

With the partition of India, and the creation of Pakistan, Hiroko will find herself displaced once again, in a world where old wars are replaced by new conflicts. But the shadows of history--personal and political--are cast over the interrelated worlds of the Burtons, the Ashrafs, and the Tanakas as they are transported from Pakistan to New York and, in the novel's astonishing climax, to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11. The ties that have bound these families together over decades and generations are tested to the extreme, with unforeseeable consequences. -- Picador

This month, my on-line book club agreed to read BURNT SHADOWS by Kamila Shamsie. BURNT SHADOWS has received a lot of critical acclaim including the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist, so I was really looking forward to reading this novel and discussing it. Unfortunately, I'm going to miss our group's discussion later today because I am attending my nephew's 1st birthday party. (However, I can't be too disappointed because I am very excited to see the little guy and practice teaching him to say "Aunt Julie.")

I consider myself a pretty big fan of books about other cultures, and BURNT SHADOWS definitely fits the bill. This book encompasses a great deal -- from Nagasaki in 1945, to Delhi in 1947, to Pakistan in the early 1980s, and ends with New York and Afghanistan right after the attack on the World Trade Center. It also deals with characters who are from many different countries including the United States, England, Germany, Japan, Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. I'm sure you can see how many huge world events were covered within the pages of this novel. I believe this book accomplished a great deal within its almost 400 pages, and I was extremely impressed with how the author told this story.

I actually don't feel worthy to write a review for BURNT SHADOWS, but I'm going to try anyway. I really liked this book and there are so many positive things to say about the author and her writing style, but I know I'm only scratching the surface. I'm embarrassed to say this, but I don't think I was smart enough to appreciate everything the author set out to do with BURNT SHADOWS. It's kind of like I can see what Ms. Shamsie's intentions were, but I didn't truly grasp all of them.

First and foremost, I do not have a strong understanding of history and world affairs. I was aware of all the major events in this book, but I didn't understand a lot of the political issues involved and much of the background that led to these incidents. I really feel like I missed out on some important elements of this story because of my ignorance. There were parts of this book (mainly those that took place in Pakistan and Afghanistan) where I felt a little lost. On the positive side, I do believe I learned quite a few things about this history of Pakistan as well as some of what happened in Afghanistan in the early 1980s.

Secondly, I was just blown away by Ms. Shamsie writing; and I know I didn't understood how deep this novel really was when I first finished it. I enjoyed the story and the character development, and I liked how she set up this novel in four different sections. In fact after I finished, I went back to the beginning of the novel and read the prologue again -- the book came full circle. I loved so much of the symbolism in this novel, especially the "veiled birds;" however, I also know that I missed out on some of the other themes. There is no doubt that Ms. Shamsie is an incredibly gifted writer, and I have such an appreciation for her understanding of the differences in people and their cultures. You can read more about her in this interview.

While I enjoyed this book, I have to warn you that some readers will find the pace of this novel to be rather slow. There were times when I definitely felt this way, but I just decided to focus on the beauty of the writing instead of the pace of the story. In some ways, this book reminded me a little of THE ENGLISH PATIENT; however, it is a much less difficult read. I do think this book is a worthwhile read, though, because it tells an amazing story of people who were brought together (and then tied together) through some very difficult events.

If your book group enjoys literary fiction and is looking for a very rich story with complex characters, then I definitely recommend BURNT SHADOWS. Your conversation has the potential to be extremely interesting, and I actually think that my opinion of this book could only increase after talking about it with friends. There is a fantastic reading guide available which brings up some topics that have certainly caused me to think. In fact, it was after I read the discussion questions that I realized how deep this novel really was (and how much I actually missed.) I've half tempted to revisit the book again later with these questions in mind!

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.


bermudaonion said...

I'm almost through with this book and I am really enjoying it. I don't consider it a fast read, because I have to really concentrate to absorb it, but I have definitely been drawn to it. I'm like you, though - there is so much in this book that I'm sure I don't understand. (I knew nothing about Pakistan, so I've learned a lot about it.)

Barbara said...

I loved BURNT SHADOWS. read the ARC about a year ago. the writing and such great characters, I couldn't put in down. and, yes, I learned quite a bit of history reading it. Picador has great reading group picks that don't hit a lot of reading groups' radar.

Jo-Jo said...

Thanks for the review Julie. I ordered this one from Amazon a month or so again but have yet to read it. Sounds like one I will definitely enjoy.

S. Krishna said...

This is an absolutely wonderful review - you really did this book justice. You enjoyed it more than I did, but after finishing it, I appreciate it more.

Beth Kephart said...

YOu made ME want to read the book. That makes this a great review.

Beth F said...

Thanks to your review and to the discussion at book club, I'm going to stick with this one and finish it. My problem was that I thought I could read it quickly, but it really isn't that kind of book. The more I read, the more I am drawn in.

Meghan said...

Great review, Julie, I feel like you and I felt the same way about the book! It was so deep and I know I definitely didn't get all of it the first time. I also loved that I felt like I was learning a lot and now I really want to go deeper into Pakistan's history in particular.

Anna said...

Great review! I've had my eye on this one for a while. I'm glad you said the pacing is a bit slow. While that doesn't turn me off, I'll have to wait until I'm in the mood to read it. Would it be okay to link to your post on War Through the Generations?

Diary of an Eccentric

Serena said...

I have not read this book yet, but it is on the wish list...and has been for some time. thanks for the review.

Anna said...

Thanks, Julie! I posted the link here.

Diary of an Eccentric