every shadow, everything the earth was losing,
a time to think of everything the earth
and I had lost,of all
that I would lose,
of all that I was losing.
- Agha Shahid Ali,
A Nostalgist's Map of America
Just one of two beautiful epigraphs used by Kamila Shamsie at the beginning of Burnt Shadows
and if an epigraph is to pave the way for what comes next then this one
appealed instantly and completely to my sensibilities. Something told me I was going
to love this book.
There's nothing more welcome in January than a beautifully wrapped review copy of a book, the cockles of my heart glowed as it came out of the envelope robed in blue and with the discovery still not quite complete, another layer to remove and somehow my heart leaps with it all.
See what a marketing push-over I am?
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie then revealed with one of those breath-taking book covers, the sort I'd decorate a room to match,
That's it, my soul is already paying attention.
I had heard very little about Kamila Shamsie since I read Salt and Saffron so long ago I will need to revisit it now, but tucked inside my copy was an interview with Kamila published in the Daily Telegraph in April 2005. Fascinating to read now because it obviously presages Burnt Shadows and Kamila Shamsie's words remains true to this new and astonishing book,
'I am writing about actual Pakistanis rather than stereotypes, the knock-on effect is to confront those stereotypes. People come up and tell me that my novels give them a very different idea of the place.'
fact that I had kept this means that Kamila Shamsie was on my mental
'A' list of writers to read about and follow, then I sort of forgot and
somehow missed reading the subject of this piece Broken Verses,
but with themes of fundamentalism and its effect on people's lives I
suspect it was a book that intuitively led to the writing of Burnt Shadows.
This is a brave and exquisitely crafted novel, beautifully written and a clever book too because Kamila Shamsie takes as her over-arching theme sixty years of history but begins in the here and now with a prisoner, as yet unknown, arrested in 2002 and about to be taken to Guantanamo Bay.
Identifying and exploring the possibility of connections between events from Nagasaki to Indian partition thence to New York in the aftermath of 9/11, whilst weaving in Afghanistan ever-present in the background and occasionally the foreground and thereby creating a huge and potentially sprawling canvas to work with, is nothing less than ambitious. Keeping order over such a vast amount of material no mean feat, like herding narrative cats, yet Kamila Shamsie maintains perfect command leaving me beyond impressed as I turned the final page.
The people are the matrix as the book unfurls in Nagasaki on August 9th 1945 and with a telling first part of the book entitled The Yet Unknowing World. We know of course that the unlikely couple Hiroko Tanaka and her Berlin friend Konrad Weiss are about to face yet again the devastating trauma that just four days previously had been unknown to mankind. Hiroko is wearing her mother's kimono and here begins the significance of the three black cranes on the cover of the book, those birds embroidered on the back of the kimono burn themselves into the skin on Hiroko's back, a brand that will remain with her for life.
Cranes symbolic of so much, an intermediary between heaven and earth, immortality, a herald of death or war, protective motherhood, vigilance (I didn't know all that by the way but J.C.Cooper did, his Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols never far from my right hand and at times like this can reveal hidden depths) and so many of these themes surface and are explored in Burnt Shadows that I can hardly imagine a better choice.
Hiroko survives 'that unspeakable day' now forever to be known as 'hibakusha' and deciding to leave Japan she travels to India to seek out Konrad's sister and her family.
'She had not thought of destination as much as departure, wheeling through the world with the awful freedom of of someone with no one to answer to...a figure out of myth...who loses everything and is born anew in blood.'
Konrad's sister Ilse instantly recognises that from the crucible of intense suffering something very special and indelible has been cast and forged in Hiroko
' Here was one who would squeeze the sun in her fist if she ever got the chance; yes, and tilt her head back to swallow its liquid light.'
Kamila Shamsie plants the foundations of the insidious tentacles of
terrorism within this cataclysmic nuclear event and plots them
intuitively through the events of history and across continents whilst
paying careful attention to so much else besides.
There is a profound sense of place to everywhere Kamila Shamsie turns her attentions. Nagasaki, war-torn but still revealing elements of sheer beauty,
'the glassy loveliness of frost flowers in winter, seas of blue azaleas in summer...'
Delhi oppressively hot,
'The sun is possessive of this city in the summer - it wants all its beauty to itself, so it chases everyone away.'
Afghanistan another war-torn country but a place of vast and impressive beauty and constantly lingering in my mind the question, who is going to be the prisoner of the first page, shackled, stripped and about to be dressed in the orange jumpsuit who wonders to himself
'How did it come to this.'
It is rare indeed for a book to ambush me with welling tears but Burnt Shadows
did it more than once, and I am left feeling as sure as I ever can be
that this will be one of the year's important novels and whilst I am
making no predictions...oh hang it all why not...this book has got
Booker long list (if it's entered that is....waving to James
Naughtie... call it in if it's not) and who can know what else, writ
large and I have no doubt we will be hearing much more about it in the
months to come.
There I've been and gone and said it now and it's only February but don't fret, you too can have a chance to decide for yourselves, Bloomsbury have three prize draw copies of Burnt Shadows ready to post out worldwide to three lucky winners. At the last count dovegreyreader now gets visitors from ninety-eight countries so that includes all of you, names in comments and perhaps start thinking about decorating the room to match the book whilst I, talking of herding cats, go and wake the slumbering draw master.