Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie (2009)

In a word: dreadful. In several words: this book was so bad it made me angry. I generally adhere to the rule that life is too short to read bad books, so gave up on this seventy pages in when I first attempted it last year. But then I started this blog, and I felt it was necessary to power on through the bad so that I couldn’t be accused of simply promoting books I liked.

Why should it make me so angry? It was convoluted, obtuse, pretentious, opportunistic, flat, and inhabited by one dimensional characters who were both stereotypes and completely implausible at the same time. On the positive side, Shamsie isn’t a bad writer per se–that is, she constructs fairly nice sentences. And the ending was actually pretty powerful. But that is where the positives run out.

It was the convolution that bothered me most. Burnt Shadows begins in Nagasaki in 1945. Hiroko Tanaka is a very un-Japanese young Japanese woman in love with Konrad Weiss, a very un-German German. The reader could forgive the anachronism of these characters if it was an isolated occurrence, but it isn’t. Hiroko and Konrad plan to marry once the war ends, but, as we all know, Nagasaki was not the place to be in 1945, and Konrad is killed in the bomb. (In one of the tackiest motifs of the entire book, Hiroko’s back is burnt in the blast with the images of three flying cranes, the design on the kimono she is wearing at the time. Many South Asian writers are quick to dismiss exoticising symbols in literature–overwhelming colour, wafting spices, the chaos of the bazaar, etc etc etc, so it is surprising that Shamsie should resort to such a cliched image of Japanese-ness.) As well as Konrad, the rest of Hiroko’s family and friends are killed in the bomb. Remembering Konrad’s talk of a long-lost sister in Delhi, and with nowhere else to go, Hiroko travels to India in 1946. Konrad’s sister and brother-in-law reluctantly take her in. Hiroko develops a bizarre but life-long friendship with the utterly despicable Elizabeth/Ilsa (who I think we are meant to view sympathetically), and falls in love with the employee Sajjad Ashraf, a Delhi Muslim. Without wanting to give away too many plot details, the Partition in 1947 leads Hiroko and Sajjad to Karachi, where they settle. The novel jumps to the 1980s and to Hiroko and Sajjad’s teenage son, an intelligent but naive and confused young man. His naivete takes him to a mujahideen training camp in the north-west of Pakistan, a move that ends in tragedy. Then we jump to New York immediately post-9/11, a place with a paranoid fear of Muslims. The cross-cultural, cross-generational relationships that have developed throughout the book between the Japanese-Pakistani family and the English-American one is put to its ultimate test. I like a good multi-generational, multi-national family saga, but the attempt to create this in Burnt Shadows was horribly convoluted and implausible.

Now to the obtuseness and complete lack of subtlety. Coincidentally I happened to watch My Name is Khan last night, the 2010 Bollywood film featuring Shah Rukh Khan as an autistic Indian Muslim living in the US post-9/11, who, for various reasons, sets about proving to the US that his “name is Khan and [he is] not a terrorist”. There is nothing subtle in the film’s attempts to show that not all Muslims are terrorists, that the US is racist, and that people should be judged by their individual actions and not the stereotypical images of the communities to which they belong. These messages are bashed over the viewer’s head continuously for two and a half hours. But this is a Bollywood film and one expects this complete lack of nuance from this genre–it is a defining characteristic. Burnt Shadows is a replica of this in novel form, but with an intense earnestness, lacking the comedy that makes a Bollywood film watchable. It was 363 pages of being bashed over the head with cliched messages about tolerance, diversity and the societal limits of these.

To add insult to the injury caused by this appalling novel, Shamsie managed to get Salman Rushdie, William Dalrymple, Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam, Tahmima Anam and Anita Desai–all extremely good writers of wonderful books–to say nice things about Burnt Shadows for the cover. Shamsie comes from a family of writers–her great-aunt was the Indian writer Attia Hosain, author of the Partition novel Sunlight on a Broken Column, and her mother is the reknowned writer Muneeza Shamsie. One really hopes that Kamila Shamsie didn’t get the glowing testimonies from the abovementioned writers because of her literary pedigree.

It has been suggested in recent years that while India has enjoyed a growing international literary reputation due to its English language writing, Pakistan has been left behind, but that it is starting to catch up. Kamila Shamsie is usually cited in such comments as an example, and although I have not read any of her other highly acclaimed and award-winning books, Burnt Shadows is not in the same league as books by Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif or Nadeem Aslam, other Pakistani writers of her generation. I am curious to read some of Shamsie’s other books now, to see whether her good reputation is deserved and this was just a bad one, or whether she might be Pakistan’s most overrated writer.


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Travel writer at www.wildernessmetropolis.com. Editor, writer, traveller, reader, literary critic.

7 thoughts on “Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie (2009)”

  1. You should perhaps try Moni Mohsin’s work from Pakistan. Her Diary of a Butterfly was rather interesting and layered satire. It showed me my neighbour country more than any other books I had read before…I also like Bapsi Sidhwa’s work.

    1. Thanks. I’ve heard of Moni Mohsin but I haven’t been able to get her book from where I am in Australia. I have actually written some stuff on Bapsi Sidhwa, but nothing published yet. I really love “Cracking India”, and “The Bride” and “The Crow Eaters” are good, too. Not sure about her others though!

  2. I’ve read Shamsie’s other books and they also have that artificial Bollywood quality you mention here (Salt and Saffron’s ending is laughable and isnt meant to be), but with Burnt Shadows she has combined this with something more troublesome than having fame because of obvious family connections. Her earlier work was about the drawing room elite of Karachi, her own cocoon, and though normally I’m glad when a writer comes out of a cocoon, it should not be to jump on a bandwagon, as she is now doing by seeming to engage with ‘larger’ topics (9/11, imperialism, Guantanamo). It is interesting that she did not speak out right after 9/11, when the world was mostly sympathizing with the US. It is only when the War on Terror grew less popular in the UK, where she lives, that she positioned herself differently. So though she ‘seems’ to be taking a risk with this book, she is still being safe and strategic. In Pakistan among the genuinely fearless writers Mohammad Hanif tops that list, though I’d also add Uzma Aslam Khan, whose defiant Trespassing (I enjoyed your review of it) was completed a few months before 9/11, and who, doesn’t come from a famous family.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I definitely think Uzma Aslam Khan is a far superior writer to Shamsie. I’m still waiting for her to create her masterpiece, though 🙂 Glad you like my blog.

  3. P.S.I said your review of Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing but I meant her works in general, since T is referenced in your fine review of her first book, The Story of Noble Rot. (Though I think I enjoyed Thinner Than Skin more than you. For me it got better as it progressed.) Also just wanted to say thank you for this great blog.So many books here I haven’t read, now I can add them to my list. I will visit more often…

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