Burnt Shadows A Novel

Kamila Shamsie




Trade Paperback

384 Pages


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Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize Winner for Fiction
Shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction

Hiroko Tanaka is twenty-one and in love with the man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss. As she steps onto her veranda, wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, her world is suddenly and irrevocably altered. In the numbing aftermath of the atomic bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. In search of new beginnings, two years later, Hiroko travels to Delhi. It is there that her life will become intertwined with that of Konrad's half sister, Elizabeth, her husband, James Burton, and their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from whom she starts to learn Urdu.

With the partition of India, and the creation of Pakistan, Hiroko will find herself displaced once again, in a world where old wars are replaced by new conflicts. But the shadows of history—personal and political—are cast over the interrelated worlds of the Burtons, the Ashrafs, and the Tanakas as they are transported from Pakistan to New York and, in the novel's astonishing climax, to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11. The ties that have bound these families together over decades and generations are tested by wars and disasters, with unforeseeable consequences.


Praise for Burnt Shadows

"Shamsie stitches together a sweeping saga that begins with a young Japanese woman in wartime Nagasaki and ends, more than half a century later, with a Pakistani prisoner about to be shipped to Guantanamo Bay. The tale unfolds through the lives of two unusually multinational (and multilingual) families: the Weiss-Burtons (German, British and American) and the Ashraf-Tanakas (Indian/Pakistani and Japanese). Not counting minor detours, their triumphs and tragedies span five countries and, without giving too much away, at least three world-changing historical events. On the face of it, collapsing so broad a canvas in a relatively slender novel is a recipe for chaos worthy of a subcontinental urban planner. But in Ms. Shamsie's self-assured hands this does not come to pass. The story line remains taut, the characters vividly etched. Even the implausible romance at the heart of the novel—between Hiroko Tanaka, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and Sajjad Ashraf, a young aesthete forced to emigrate from Delhi to Karachi in the wake of the 1947 partition of British India—is somehow rendered believable. Ms. Shamsie is . . . as a cartographer of culture. She notes, for instance, that in Indo-Muslim society the emotional terrain of mourning is often communal rather than personal; Urdu contains no phrase for leaving a person alone with his grief. The siren call of modernity—with its implicit privileging of the nuclear family over the extended clan—can be deeply disturbing. As the matriarch of the undivided Ashraf family in pre-partition Delhi declares archly, 'maa-dern' is a word 'created only to cut you off from your people and your past.' Sajjad's failure to try sushi after 35 years with Hiroko tells you all you need to know about the persistence of inherited attitudes that span everything from the loyalty of taste buds to the mental geography of marriage. In the end, for all its insights into the cultural and familial, this is above all a political novel. The choice of a Japanese protagonist allows the author to question much of the received wisdom of what used to be called the War on Terror. As a young teacher in Nagasaki, Hiroko has known adolescent boys as eager to embrace the cult of martyrdom as any young mujahideen. In General Zia's concerted effort to drag Islam out of the home and into the public square, she sees the echo of Japanese emperor worship. The implication of these observations, of course, is that criticism of Islam is unwarranted. Not that long ago it was followers of Shintoism who were turning aircraft into missiles while dreaming of immortality . . . A cleverly constructed and powerfully imagined novel. Ultimately, as with any work of the imagination, the color of the politics matters much less than the quality of the prose."—The Wall Street Journal Online, Asia edition

"Kamila Shamsie is a writer of immense ambition and strength. She understands a great deal about the ways in which the world's many tragedies and histories shape one another, and about how human beings can try to avoid being crushed by their fate and can discover their humanity, even in the fiercest combat zones of the age. Burnt Shadows is an absorbing novel that commands, in the reader, a powerful emotional and intellectual response."—Salman Rushdie

"Burnt Shadows is audacious in its ambition, epic in its scope. A startling expansion of the author's intentions, imagination and craftsmanship. One can only admire the huge advances she has made, and helped us to make, in understanding the new global tensions."—Anita Desai

"In this brilliant book Kamila Shamsie opens a vista onto the century we have just lived through—pointing out its terror and its solace. She is so extraordinary a writer that she also offers hints about the century we are living through—the dark corners that contain challenges, as well as the paths that lead to beauty's lair."—Nadeem Aslam, author of Maps for Lost Lovers

"Burnt Shadows is a beautiful, beautiful book. I was entirely swept up in the story, and I feel, now that I've (so reluctantly) put it down, that I have traveled the world and spent the past six decades with Hiroko and her family. The book speaks boldly and powerfully of our age; I know it will stay with me for a long time to come."—Tahmima Anam, author of The Golden Age

"An epic tale of two families whose lives are intertwined by conflict. As a young woman, Hiroko Tanaka survives the bombing of Nagasaki, which takes the life of her first love, German-born Konrad Weiss. Physically and mentally scarred, Hiroko flees to Konrad's sister Elizabeth, who lives with her English husband James Burton in Delhi. Sajjad Ashraf, who frequents the Burton household, gives Urdu lessons to Hiroko, and they fall in love. But arranged marriages are traditional in his Muslim family, so the couple elopes and flees to Istanbul. Later, after Partition ends Sajjad's hopes of returning to Delhi, they move to Karachi. There Hiroko bears a son, Raza, who grows into a precocious youth with a passion for languages. With the appearance at their door of James and Elizabeth's son Harry, the lines of the two families cross once more. Raza flubs a final exam and deviates from his college-bound path to befriend a young Afghani smuggler, with whom he attempts to join the mujahideen. Shamsie builds vivid contemporary scenes on a rich and sometimes sordid history; the modern characters' struggles attain tragic, even mythic resonance as parents' ordeals are visited on their children. Wit, formidable imagination and intricate, well-worked characterizations distinguish the twisty narrative. Raza experiences mixed emotions as he travels through the blasted hinterlands with Afghani arms smugglers. In a world fraught with duplicity and inside deals among militant tribesmen, military contractors and CIA operatives, he learns that morality is anything but straightforward. But the struggles of zealots and mercenaries are dwarfed by Hiroko's titanic journey. Having survived and suffered so much, she finds herself sitting with a crossword puzzle in a West Village bistro, contemplating the grand and hellish pattern of her loved ones' lives as she considers with horror the threat of nuclear proliferation between India and Pakistan. With a rare combination of skill and sensitivity, Shamsie generates pathos for outsiders and the displaced."—Kirkus Reviews

"An engrossing story of resilience and humanity in the face of crushing tragedy, Shamsie's fifth novel follows the interconnected lives of two families brought together in Nagasaki near the end of World War II. Their fates are linked for 60 years through several countries and ultimately to a somewhat paranoid New York following 9/11. The allusion to recent historical events is not simply an overt device on which to hang a particular political viewpoint; these events are integral to the personal narratives presented here. Shamsie explores the meanings of cultural identity through characters who endure sacrifice, betrayal, and human-made disaster as they live and work in countries foreign to them. This critically acclaimed Pakistani author, who writes in English, is a powerful storyteller who deserves a wider U.S. audience. Readers who appreciate the cross-cultural scope and insight into global tensions in the works of Khaled Hosseini and Salman Rushdie will thoroughly enjoy this novel. Highly recommended."—Gwen Vredevoogd, Library Journal

"Shamsie takes readers on a tour de force in this examination of the impact of war, following a trajectory from the devastation of Nagasaki in WWII through the conflict-ridden formation of Pakistan in the late 1940s to post-9/11 Manhattan and war-torn Afghanistan. Konrad Weiss, living in Nagasaki in the summer of 1945, hires a local woman, Hiroko Tanaka, to help him write a book about the city. The romance that blossoms is cut short when the atom bomb falls, killing Konrad, and after a while, Hiroko, feeling she can no longer stay in her country, travels to India to find Konrad's sister, Ilse, the wife of a British lawyer enjoying the privileges of the British raj's final days. From there, Shamsie brilliantly interweaves the lives of an array of characters as she brings the story forward to the 1980s, then to the beginning of the 21st century, exploring the clashes between loyalty to family, homeland and cause. Shamsie's unsparing look at how individuals respond when war affects their world makes for an intriguing, heartrending tale of human connection."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Burnt Shadows

The Yet Unknowing World
... a time to recollect every shadow, everything the earth was losing, a time to think of everything the earth and I had lost, of all that I would lose,...

Read the full excerpt



  • Interview with Kamila Shamsie

    Kamila Shamsie talks about the inspiration for her novel, Burnt Shadows.



  • Kamila Shamsie

  • Kamila Shamsie was born in 1973 in Karachi. She has studied and taught in the United States. Two of her previous novels, Kartography and Broken Verses, have won awards from Pakistan's Academy of Letters. She writes for The Guardian (UK) and frequently broadcasts on the BBC.

  • Kamila Shamsie Mark Pringle
    Kamila Shamsie




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