BURNT SHADOWS – By Kamila Shamsie
Have you ever watched a snowflake drop slowly from the sky, perch on your nose and melt away into thin air? I presume no. But what if we did have the power to magnify and slow down the events of our daily lives? Wouldn’t every movement and glance appear to be united in harmony, synchronized as dance steps to a song we always knew but never acknowledged? Kamila does exactly this in her book, Burnt Shadows. To call it a book would be an understatement. For between the front cover etched with black birds ready to take flight and the soft brown paper at the back, I discovered a world like no other. Those pages weren’t a mere tapestry of words arranged together but a journey through three monumental eras. To us, Nagasaki, The Partition of India and 9/11 are three chapters in our history text book. We learnt facts, figures and wrote long essays in our History 101 courses. We only paused at the remarkable lack of humanity when the atomic bomb was mercilessly detonated, unemotionally deciphered the hidden political agendas of Nehru and Jinnah, and we vehemently voiced our hatred for those involved in pulling down the World Trade centre. But to what end? And what about the ‘Hibakusha’ , those who weren’t blown to pieces by a chemical reaction? Where a story ends, another begins. World War 2 might have been the final straw for the men in suits dictating the world’s next course of action but for Hiroko, a survivor, it marked the beginning of a renewed life that would launch her across the Pacific Ocean and into the arms of the country that set her own one ablaze. The irony is too hard to miss. Kamila blatantly ignores describing the actual historical event but the void between her words provides a certain depth and a heartache that no other book stirs up even with several pages of details. This is an effective technique and you have to laud her for experimenting so beautifully with it. At first, when you pick up the book, you notice her powerful grip on the language and how seamlessly she weaves you in and out of emotions you’ve never felt before. She can be light and humorous, pensive and philosophical but also cold and piercing. Her words are jauntily juxtaposed with idioms and phrases that crease your face into a smile. Here and there, she picks up the Shakespearean habit of using an adjective as a noun and leaves her readers bewildered but nonetheless adding to the enchantment. Soon, you forget to notice that this is just a book and not a dream you are living in. Words slide off the page only to be replaced by vivid imagery, emphatic lines of thought molding your perspective but always allowing you a glimpse of the other side. We travel with Hiroko and I don’t mean in time and space but with her pendulum of emotions, of highs, of lows, of bleak Monday mornings, of
anxiety attacks and of crushing losses. A rollercoaster of experiences that traumatize you, enthrall you but most of all, help you understand what the definition of humanity is. It’s a thoughtful book written with the destination in mind as well as providing dimension to the journey and neatly ties up all the loose ends. Anecdotes from Japanese culture and from the Quran work as well as zari embroidery on saris do ; adds richness and intensity. If life was a bird, time and space would be its two wings and it’s this bird that Kamila has captured in a mere 363 pages. I quote the scene in Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris: “Gil: I would like you to read my novel and get your opinion. Ernest Hemingway: I hate it. Gil: You haven't even read it yet. Ernest Hemingway: If it's bad, I'll hate it. If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more. You don't want the opinion of another writer.” This book defies his logic, it’s too hard to hate even as a writer. Or maybe because this book had a soul I could completely connect to. Whatever the reason maybe, the book is stunning and Kamila, an enviable writer. Why ? Because Burnt Shadows is exactly what heartbreak would look like on paper.
Nagasaki, The Partition of India and 9/11 Meet the people whose lives were altered forever in this brilliant novel by an extraordinary write...