Burnt Shadows, By Kamila Shamsie
All modern life is here, in this decade-spanning and continent-bestriding post-9/11 novel
Sunday 12 April 2009
Novelists continue to try trapping the vastness of our post-9/11 world inside a hardback cover – the fictional equivalent of stuffing a duvet into a handbag. The sheer scale of the task has then persuaded most of them to paint 9/11 in miniature instead. Don DeLillo, master of the vast canvas, chucked out his big brushes and picked up a small tin of watercolours to create Falling Man. The language of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a short, restrained dramatic monologue in which a Pakistani man speaks politely to an American in a café, is so deliberately formal it's positively Austen-esque. Jonathan Safran Foer's attempt in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is largely tied to the travails of an eccentric little boy called Oskar. Ian McEwan limited the events of Saturday to a single day. Each of these novelists went Lilliputian and, to be fair, each succeeds. But Kamila Shamsie has thrown caution wildly to the wind. Burnt Shadows is a giant of novel, striding purposefully across Japan, India, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan and America. The characters are countless, the language myriad, the timeframe huge. So has Shamsie managed to release the post-9/11 novel from its self-imposed small canvas?
Burnt Shadows opens as an unnamed man stands naked, waiting to be given the orange jumpsuit that will mark him as an inmate at Guantanamo. Immediately we soar back to Japan, August 1945, and the Nagasaki bomb. Hiroko Tanaka survives the attack, but with radiation sickness and the silhouette of three birds seared on her back. Her German fiancé, Konrad Weiss, is evaporated. To prove that Shamsie can handle the delicate detail as well as the broad sweep, there's a beautifully realised scene in which Hiroko finds a rock marked with what she believes is Konrad's shadow. Rolling the stone to the International Cemetery, she lies down on his shadow, "her mouth pressed against the darkness of his chest", before she buries the rock in a grave.
Hiroko travels to India to find Konrad's half-sister, Elizabeth, and her English husband, James Burton. While staying with them, she falls in love with their Muslim employee, Sajjad Ashraf. Following partition, Sajjad and Hiroko are forced to settle in Pakistan, where they raise their son, Raza, to expect a university education. But, as in any decent novel, beware of expectations. Raza's life becomes entangled with that of Elizabeth and James Burton's son, Harry. At this point the novel takes on the urgency of a political thriller. Ruthless CIA operatives and religious fundamentalists drive the novel to its conclusion.
The grasp of language, the subtlety of expression and the sheer mastery of international politics are all impressive. And so, too, are the details: family loyalties, national allegiances, betrayals, the sometimes misguided desire we have to protect our children from the truth. Burnt Shadows has just been included on the Orange Prize longlist. I expect it to appear on the shortlist. In fact, in my view, it should win the prize. To the question of whether big brushes have worked for Kamila Shamsie, the answer is a resounding, thumping, capitalised YES.
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