Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Even though it’s only April (and the book doesn’t even hit stands until next month), I’m announcing with absolute certainty that Burnt Shadows gets my unwavering vote as THE Book of the Year. I’ll only be too happy to eat my words because that can only mean more great future reads, but I’m not holding my breath that another title will unseat Shamsie’s latest novel anytime soon.
Imagine the literary accomplishment – such poetic audacity, even! – of recounting one couple’s impulsive decision to wed, her conversion to Islam, their mosque-blessed union, their first-ever lovemaking in the warm falling rain, and their return to the house they left in such a flurry just a few hours earlier, juxtaposed line by repetitive line of how many times (17) the husband-half of the other couple voices aloud to his waiting wife, “Where do you think they are?”
Or how about the heartbreaking irony of capturing the custom in one farming village in Afghanistan – at least before war decimated the once fertile country – that a boy is recognized to be a man when his growing hand can finally hold a pomegranate in its entirety within … and yet even before that hand is large enough to hold the ripened sweet fruit, it already knows too well how to hold and fire an AK-47 without remorse.
The book is filled with such moments of beauty and desperation, of joyful anticipation and the most horrific inhumanity. It’s a story of three generations of two intertwined families, each of the family members inhabiting, discarding, and adapting to a vastly international cross-section of histories and cultures.
In Nagasaki just on the eve of the end of World War II, Hiroko Tanaka has lovingly agreed to marry Konrad Weiss, a German ex-pat intellectual now reviled by the same community that once welcomed him as an equal ally. Too soon Nagasaki becomes a symbol of great sacrifice where lives must be destroyed in seconds, ironically for the sake of future peace. Hiroko survives, but is marked forever by bird-shaped shadows of death – the design of the kimono she was wearing that is literally burnt onto her back in the instant the second atom bomb detonated.
She travels to India, where she might find, amazingly enough, the only connection to her former life. She arrives in Delhi at the home of Konrad’s older half-sister and her British husband, a privileged representative of the British Raj, now waiting for Partition which will send them all ‘home.’ There the initial contact between these two disparate families is cemented …. and more than half a century later, in the heated aftermath of 9/11, their three-generation relationship will have to face some of the most heartbreaking man-made consequences once again.
Burnt Shadows is one of those books that the less you know about, the more you’ll appreciate as you discover its intricacies on your own. So I shall not include spoilers here. I’ll just be the one to insist you must absolutely read this book! Lucky for us that most book sites let you pre-order: QUICK, open a new window and reserve your copy NOW.
Tidbit: Ooh, what fabulous news indeed (this just in on April 28, 2009): Shamsie is coming to SALTAF 2009. That’s Saturday November 7, 2009. Stay tuned for more announcements … but goodness, the authors of two of my favorite books coming to the Smithsonian. Life is good, huh?