Monday, April 6, 2009

Shadow Play

This is from the latest Tehelka

BURNT SHADOWS Kamila Shamsie

There have been novels about the atomic bombs dropped over Japan (Black Rain). There have been novels on the aftermath of India’s Partition (Train to Pakistan). There have been novels based in war-torn Afghanistan (The Wasted Vigil). And there have been novels regarding the aftermath of 9/11 (too many to recount).

Now, Kamila Shamsie bravely tries to weave all of these and more into her new work, Burnt Shadows -- clearly, an ambitious departure from her earlier novels. Though her even-toned prose and efforts to probe the changing psyche of characters over the decades are worthy of note, what lets the novel down is its linear, chronological structure that calls for many technical compromises.

The action of the novel begins in Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, when the 21-year-old Hiroko’s life is ravaged by the dropping of the atomic bomb. It moves to Delhi in early 1947, when Hiroko arrives at the house of her deceased fiancĂ©’s sister, Elizabeth, and her husband, James Burton. She strikes up a relationship with James’ legal assistant, Sajjad Ashraf, and the scene shifts briefly to Istanbul before going on to Karachi in 1982, where we’re introduced to Raza, a young man confused about his future, who travels to a mujahideen training camp with an Afghan associate. From here, the novel segues between the post-9/11 terrains of New York and Afghanistan.

Throughout, these tragic global events are the backdrop to the shifting relationships between various members of two families over the years: “Whatever might be happening in the wider world, at least the Weiss-Burtons and the Tanaka-Ashrafs had finally found spaces to cohabit in, complicated shared history giving nothing but depth to the reservoir of their friendships.”

With such a grand design, there’s always the danger that the need to keep the narrative moving, as well as provide connecting chronological tissue, will precede character development. That this is unavoidable to some extent (Hiroko’s character is the most fully realized) is ruefully acknowledged by the author herself when she has one of the characters tell another: “Both times you've entered my home it's been nuclear-related. Once was acceptable; twice just seems like lazy plotting”. (Perhaps this could have been avoided had the links been thematic rather than literal, as with the work of David Mitchell.)

In other respects, though, Shamsie’s care with the narrative is evident. There are striking impressionistic sketches of the cities that her characters travel through, and passages such as Raza's panic when faced with an exam paper, among others, are well-handled.

Setting aside the question of how the book’s structure impedes its ambition, Burnt Shadows is an intrepid look at how the scars of history -- like the bird-shaped radiation blemishes on Hiroko’s back -- are difficult to erase in an age when individual destinies become subservient to nationalistic ambitions.

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