History is a deep sea, and once you fall in it's easy to fall forever. Impossible questions will crowd your mind as you tumble -- how did it happen? Why did they do it? Is everything determined, or just intertwined?
Kamila Shamsie's new novel, Burnt Shadows (Picador, 2009), which was shortlisted this year for the Orange Prize, is deeply concerned with all of these questions, without trying to offer easy answers. The narrative skips like a stone -- from Nagasaki during World War II to Old Delhi in the last days of the Raj to the Pakistani city of Karachi, and ultimately to New York City in 2001 -- dragging fragments of each location and culture into the next, binding elements of history and humanity that are both distant and seemingly unrelated.
Any review you read of Burnt Shadows will make a point of calling the story ambitious, and it's easy to see why. The book is complex and sweeping in scope, seeking to tie together not just the disparate lives of its inhabitants, but also several of the most noted international tragedies in recent history. And yet the heart of the thing (for even vertiginously epic tales need a center around which to spin) is quite simple: a Japanese woman named Hiroko Tanaka who, in the wartime atmosphere of distrust and air raid sirens, happens to fall in love.
Hiroko's relationship with her fiance, the German emigre Konrad Weiss, is chemically beautiful -- the reaction of their antagonistic elements is tangible but subtle, allowing us to savor the shy determination with which Hiroko insists on using the honorific "Konrad-san" whenever she addresses her lover.
Shamsie's interest, however, isn't in teasing out the intricacies and intimacies of a liaison between oddfellows, and Konrad's death in the American bombing of Nagasaki is the first of several rude surprises kick-starting the pace of the storyline. This isn't to say that his death, or the bomb, is dealt with lightly -- indeed, the image of Konrad, reduced by the atomic explosion to a smudge on the stones of the city streets, is one of the most powerful and disturbing in the novel. But one feels keenly the loss of their love story, not only for the obvious tragedy it represents, but because we are denied any further entry into it.
This more than anything is the weakness of Burnt Shadows: Shamsie does a beautiful job of building worlds, only to take them away again in a sudden and breathless fashion. We follow Hiroko to Delhi, where she comes to live with Konrad's estranged sister Ilse and her husband James Burton. Hiroko, in spite of developing a close friendship with Ilse, is at sea amidst the wealth and privilege of the Burton household, and falls into a complicated but tender romance with the Burtons' employee Sajjad Ashraf, who tutors her in Urdu.
From there, the story is once again splintered and reassembled, with Hiroko and Sajjad living in Pakistan after being denied re-entry into India following the Partition. We see pieces of lives -- the Ashrafs' son, Raza, befriending a young Afghan refugee (who is fooled by Raza's appearance and facility with languages into believing him to be a Hazara Afghan), Ilse leaving James Burton and raising their son Harry in New York City -- and we see lives collide -- Harry, a young CIA agent, reestablishing contact with Hiroko and Sajjad, and then Harry again, taking Raza quietly into the world of covert operations after an incident which leaves the boy grieving and guilt-stricken. Like Hiroko and Konrad's original love story, each of these moments is rendered in vivid detail. But in spite of the intense reality of the scenes, we are rarely given time to savor their emotional aftershocks.
And that's a shame. Burnt Shadows does a compelling job of implicating the world in our minute heartbreaks; of teasing out the potential for politics, however distant they may feel, to break into our seemingly self-contained existences and make hash of our plans. However, Shamsie's at her best in this roaming epic when she's at her most microscopic. As the novel's first section draws to a close, the narrative becomes fractured, in keeping with Hiroko's experience of the atomic blast. In the midst of the confusion, we experience her discovery of Konrad's death as a mere fragment of a scene -- almost a haiku -- couched in blank pages like an interrupted thought. This brevity, because of its psychological context, is as powerful as any moment before or to come:
"There. See? There."
"How can you be sure it's him?"
"No one else in Nagasaki could draw such a long shadow."
At home in implication and poetics, Shamsie is able to make us draw breath at the slightest touch, and as such it's somewhat disappointing that she insists on using so many broad narrative strokes.