Sunday, April 26, 2009

Epic tale told through innocent eyes

Kamila Shamsie's book is the latest addition to a fertile crop of fiction emerging from one of South Asia's most fragile nations. She is in august company. Over the past few years, a slew of writers, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammad Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin among them, have staked claim to a daring new voice that more than matches the fiction emerging from Pakistan's bete noire, India.

Burnt Shadows (Picador, 384 pages, $14) is Shamsie's fifth novel, and her most ambitious. We follow the life of a Japanese woman Hiroko, as she undergoes a series of life-altering events, each leaving grave personal imprints on her, but also pointing toward the momentous shifts taking place in global geopolitics.

So from losing her German paramour, Konrad, in the Nagasaki nuclear bombing in 1945 to finding herself falling in love with Sajjad -- a Man Friday at the household of Konrad's half-sister Elizabeth Burton in India -- Hiroko, and Burnt Shadows, flit lightly from one event to the next. The India of 1947 is a dangerous place with the British departure from the subcontinent leaving in its wake a bloody splitting up of the subcontinent -- the Hindu-dominant India and Muslim-dominant Pakistan.

Throughout, we see the world, and its unsettling ways, through Hiroko's innocent eyes, as fate takes her and Sajjad to Pakistan, where they build a home. Really, it boggles one's imagination to consider a Japanese woman adapting herself to strict Islamic traditions, but Shamsie's deft touch makes the story believable.

Time passes and the next generation -- Raza, the son of Hiroko and Sajjad -- makes an appearance. It is the 1980s and a new conflict has reared its head in the neighbourhood -- the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Shamsie delicately builds the momentums of everyday life against the insidiously political situation of the time, to arrive at surprising, though plausible, plot twists.

Burnt Shadows is not as bulky a book as this review would suggest, given that it also finds space to tackle 9/11 in the scene-stealing denouement. This is, more than anything else, a tribute to Shamsie's skills as a writer of sharp, compact narratives.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

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