Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Burnt Shadows

Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows (New York: Picador, 2009). 370 pp. $14.00.

Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel ought to be called The Politically Correct Guide to Third World Grievances of the Last Sixty-Five Years. It crawls—that’s a comment on its narrative pace, by the way, and not a fancy verb—it crawls from the dropping of “Fat Man” on Nagasaki in August 1945 through the end of British colonial rule in India and the country’s partition in August 1947, the mujahideen’s resistance to Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the early ’eighties, 9/11, the toppling of the Taliban, the rounding up of enemy combatants, the specter of Guantánamo Bay, and the mass suspicion of Americans toward the Muslims in their midst. Oh, wait. That last thing doesn’t belong to history, you say? Well, who are you to say? Whose history?

Aside from its political sanctimony (“I understand for the first time how nations can applaud when their governments drop a second nuclear bomb”), Burnt Shadows is held together, you’ll excuse the expression, by the character Hiroko Tanaka. A 21-year-old teacher living in Nagasaki and in love with a German refugee when the bomb falls, Hiroko survives the blast. But she is left with a permanent scar, “three charcoal-coloured bird-shaped burns on her back,” from the images on a silk kimono that were seared into her flesh. “It’s always there,” she says many years later, living in Karachi with her Muslim husband who had fled Delhi at the time of partition—always there, just like the scar on Sethe’s back in Beloved. “I’ve never seen it and never will,” Sethe says, but she was told it what it looks like: “A chokecherry tree. Trunk, branches, and even leaves. Tiny little chokecherry leaves. But that was eighteen years ago. Could have cherries too now for all I know.” She received it when she was whipped by a white boy. “It grows there still,” she says.

Hiroko’s bird-shaped scars give Burnt Shadows its title, and serve as the novel’s central and brutally obvious symbol of loss. But perhaps I should let an Afghani mujahid, the comrade-in-arms of Hiroko’s Pakistani-born son Raza, explain:

Your mother lost her family and home to war; your father was torn away from the city whose poetry and history had nurtured his family for generations; your second father was shot dead in Afghanistan; the CIA thinks you’re a terrorist; you’ve travelled in the hold of a ship, knowing that if you died no one would ever know; home is something you remember, not some place you live. . . .Shamsie’s lament for the victims of American war and British imperialism would be more affecting if its characters were not merely assemblages of political gestures, and if its politics were not merely what Orwell once described as “the one-eyed pacifism that is peculiar to sheltered countries with strong navies”:War is like disease. Until you’ve had it, you don’t know it. But no. That’s a bad comparison. At least with disease everyone thinks it might happen to them one day. You have a pain here, swelling there, a cold which stays and stays. You start to think maybe this is something really bad. But war—countries like yours [the United States] they always fight wars, but always somewhere else. The disease always happens somewhere else. It’s why you fight more wars than anyone else; because you understand war least of all. You need to understand it better.The novel also would have benefitted from a plot, or even a story, to take the place of its slide-show political attitudinizing. And it wouldn’t hurt if Shamsie were a better prose writer:The desire to sit down on the ground and weep was strong, but instead Hiroko stepped on to the verandah, and into another world. Everything was colour, and the twittering of birds. It was like walking into the imagination of someone who has no other form of escape. So beautiful, and yet so bounded in.Perhaps the passive voice might be defended as appropriate to Shamsie’s politics, in which the people of the Third World are the objects of great powers’ actions. The lack of drama, though—to say nothing of the limp hyperbole and the vague metaphor—is sadly characteristic of her style. By coincidence, I happen just to have started Delta Wedding, because the Amateur Reader recommended it as “a summer novel, a real August novel.” Laura rides the Yellow Dog to the Delta to visit her cousins:Thoughts went out of her head and the landscape filled it. In the Delta, most of the world seemed sky. The clouds were large—larger than horses or houses, larger than boats or churches or gins. . . . The land was perfectly flat and level but it shimmered like the wing of a lighted dragonfly. It seemed strummed, as though it were an instrument and something had touched it.Okay, okay. It is unfair to compare any other writer to Eudora Welty. But the point is this. If you have not yet read Delta Wedding, or have not reread it in a while, why would you waste your time with Burnt Shadows?


Shawna said...

I snickered at: "It crawls—that’s a comment on its narrative pace, by the way, and not a fancy verb."

Quite frankly, you could have stopped there I would have been convinced to find summer reading elsewhere!

If you have any must-reads in any genre that you would like to recommend, I'm going to be shopping for books to bring along with me on my study abroad trip soon and would welcome suggestions.


Shawna's Study Abroad

D. G. Myers said...


I need more guidance if I am going to recommend must-reads. Besides Lolita, I mean. Give me some idea of what you are looking for, what you like (or have liked), what you imagine the perfect book would be.

Anonymous said...

Kamila shamsie is a great writer so spare us the biased crap. The world does not revolve around this country so even if you perceive the book is critical of America, it takes away nothing from the merits-its sweeping epic of a story, its refreshing characters and beautiful prose.

Your contempt of the book and its writer is so obvious it is not funny.

And btw this book- despite the multitude of no-nos- was nominated for Orange Pzize. Says something about your reviewing ability, does n't it?

D. G. Myers said...

And btw this book- despite the multitude of no-nos- was nominated for Orange Pzize. Says something about your reviewing ability, does n't it?


Steven said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

I come late to this party, but thank you very much for the review; it was very helpful in deciding about the book. I might have been able to tolerate the bad politics, the lack of plot the shapelessness of the whole, however, I could never abide the prose of anyone who thought this was a good sentence:

"It was like walking into the imagination of someone who has no other form of escape."

Thanks again.