Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie

07 Jun

Nice, very nice. Kamila Shamsie is definitely an author to watch out for. Burnt Shadows has been receiving good reviews since its launch early this year and it has done pretty well in India too.  We have some great literature coming out from our neighbourhood which is very encouraging.

In terms of scope Kamila has used a vast canvas that covers 5 countries, as many as 5 nationalities spanning 60 years. One has to commend her courage to attempt something on this scale. And that is the simply the greatness of the novel.  Kamila used instances in history and these are the pivots of the narrative – the interplay of history with personal lives gives it realism and authenticity. Starting from the bombing in Nagasaki to the India – Pakistan Partition, to Soviet War in Afghanistan to 9/11 in the US. The story is about two families – the Weiss family and the Sajjad clan who are players and victims of these historical events. It begins with young Hiroko in Nagasaki where she is courting the German Konrad Weiss, and then the bomb falls on Nagasaki killing Konrad and with it her dreams. She travels to Delhi to meet Konrad’s sister Ilse and her husband James and stays back with them. She meets Sajjad an employee of James who teaches her Urdu and they fall in love, they move to Karachi to escape the post partition violence. They have a son Raza who wanders into the Aghanistan conflict. The other side of the story is about Ilse, her son Harry Burton who worships Sajjad as his childhood guide, Harry’s daughter Kim is drawn into the complex relationship between the two families.

Kamila does well with delienation – Hiroko as the central character is tolerant, sensitive and enigmatic. She is the one that holds the plot together, she is the glue that keeps the two families together despite their differences and motives. Sajjad is the dreamer who toys with big ambitions but fate has him settle for less. Ilse the free spirit lives life by her rules and so also in death. I like the way Kamila has played the relationship between Ilse and Sajjad, they are circling cats constantly on guard about each other. Kim has traces of grandmom’s high spirited ways. Raza, the rebel, is impetuous  and headstrong. But the most interesting of the characters is Konrad Weiss. He is always in the background like the water-colour on a document.

Now to my reservations. It is with the narrative and the pace – three quarters of the book is easy paced and then it plays out at breakneck speed. Till the point where Sajjad, Hiroko and Raza are living a normal life in Karachi, the narrative flows along smoothly and then its a blur. I skipped several pages where Kamila overdoes the Afghan war bit with Raza and Abdullah. The editing needs some tightening, there are numerous typos. 

With promise like that I will definitely be checking out her other books like In The City By The Sea and Kartography.

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Posted by on June 7, 2009 in Highly recommended


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