Hiroko steps out onto the veranda. Her body from neck down a silk column, white with three black cranes swooping across her back. She looks out towards the mountains, and everything is more beautiful to her than it was early this morning. Nagasaki is more beautiful to her than ever before. She turns her head and sees the spires of Urakami Cathedral, which Konrad is looking up at when he notices a gap open between the clouds. Sunlight streams through, pushing the clouds apart even further.
And then the world goes white.
—From Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
The morning of August 9, 1945 breaks dreary and unspectacular in the city of Nagasaki. Nonetheless, twenty-one year-old Hiroko Tanaka is elated: she is in love. Her emerging romance with the displaced German Konrad Weiss offers release from the greyness of wartime deprivation. In this time of heightened xenophobia, their affair must be kept secret, particularly as Hiroko’s father has recently been outcast for questioning the patriotism of sending children on kamikaze missions. As Hiroko and Konrad furtively plan for a future after the war, there is no way they can comprehend the unspeakable devastation bearing down upon them.
Two years later, Hiroko arrives in Delhi at the home of Konrad’s sister Ilse and his brother-in-law James Burton. Upon Hiroko’s back are crane-shaped scars, seared into her skin when her kimono was incinerated by the bomb. She is on the run from unbearable memories, as well as from the stigma of being branded a hibakusha, a survivor of the bomb. Ilse, in an uncharacteristically impulsive move, welcomes Hiroko into her home, seeing in the brave young woman a possibility of release from her own conscripted existence. Hiroko quickly destabilizes the frigid hierarchy of the household, much to the relief of Sajjad Ashraf, James’s bored servant.
Tensions are running high in the Mohalla with the looming partition of India and Pakistan. Will Sajjad remain in his beloved Dilli/Delhi, or depart with so many others for the promise of Pakistan? Sajjad’s family has secured for him a wife, and he yearns for a legal career, still half-clinging to the hope that James will assist him. But James’s only use for him is as a chess opponent, an idle distraction as the Raj winds to a close. The Burtons are preparing to decamp for England, having already dispatched their son Harry to boarding school. But what James does not know is that Ilse is making other plans.
A romance blooms between Hiroko and Sajjad, much to the incredulity of the Burtons, whose own emotional lives have become entwined in the futures of their charismatic young charges. Despite outbursts of jealousies and a terrible act of betrayal, the Burtons nevertheless assist Hiroko and Sajjad in their flight to married life in Istanbul. Later the Ashrafs will move to Karachi to raise their son, Raza.
The lives of the Ashrafs and the Burtons will remain entwined for decades, though in ways they cannot anticipate. Across continents and through geopolitical flux, each family will continue to act as a catalytic force upon the other, sometimes in life-saving ways, and sometimes causing great peril. Why is it that some bonds flourish in times of crisis, and why do some fail? What defines the character that survives the cruelest of circumstances? And how is it that entire populations can support unspeakable acts en masse, while relating as individuals with compassion?
Longlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction, Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows is an enthralling meta-cultural epic, the panoramic tale of two families tangled together in some of the most devastating conflicts of modern history.
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Kamila Shamsie was born in 1973 in Karachi, where she grew up. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. While at the University of Massachusetts she wrote In The City By The Sea, published by Granta Books UK in 1998. This first novel was shortlisted for the John Llewelyn Rhys Award in the UK, and Shamsie received the Prime Minister's Award for Literature in Pakistan in 1999. Her 2000 novel Salt and Saffron led to Shamsie’s selection as one of Orange's “21 Writers of the 21st Century.” With her third novel, Kartography, Shamsie was again shortlisted for the John Llewelyn Rhys award in the UK. Both Kartography and her next novel, Broken Verses, won the Patras Bokhari Award from the Academy of Letters in Pakistan. Burnt Shadows, Shamsie’s fifth novel, has been longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her books have been translated into a number of languages.
Shamsie is the daughter of literary critic and writer Muneeza Shamsie, the niece of celebrated Indian novelist Attia Hosain, and the granddaughter of the memoirist Begum Jahanara Habibullah. A reviewer and columnist, primarily for the Guardian, Shamsie has been a judge for several literary awards including The Orange Award for New Writing and The Guardian First Book Award. She also sits on the advisory board of the Index on Censorship.
For years Shamsie spent equal amounts of time in London and Karachi, while also occasionally teaching creative writing at Hamilton College in New York State. She now lives primarily in London.
Of the themes in Burnt Shadows, Shamsie says, “There are a number of interconnected ideas in the book that are of interest to me but I suppose if I had to pin it down I'd say I'm exploring what happens at different intersections of personal lives and the force of history — how do people survive living through cataclysmic events? How do relationships survive it? Why is it that some relationships do survive and others don't?”
Later, the one who survives will remember that day as grey, but on the morning of 9 August itself both the man from Berlin, Konrad Weiss, and the schoolteacher, Hiroko Tanaka, step out of their houses and notice the perfect blueness of the sky, into which white smoke blooms from the chimneys of the munitions factories.
Konrad cannot see the chimneys themselves from his home in Minamiyamate, but for months now his thoughts have frequently wandered to the factory where Hiroko Tanaka spends her days measuring the thickness of steel with micrometers, images of classrooms swooping into her thoughts the way memories of flight might enter the minds of broken-winged birds. That morning, though, as Konrad slides open the doors that form the front and back of his small wooden caretaker’s house and looks in the direction of the smoke he makes no attempt to imagine the scene unfolding wearily on the factory floor. Hiroko has a day off – a holiday, her supervisor called it, though everyone in the factory knows there is no steel left to measure. And still so many people in Nagasaki continue to think Japan will win the war. Konrad imagines conscripts sent out at night to net the clouds and release them in the morning through factory chimneys to create the illusion of industry.
He steps on to the back porch of the house. Green and brown leaves are scattered across the grass of the large property, as though the area is a battlefield in which the soldiers of warring armies have lain down, caring for nothing in death but proximity. He looks up the slope towards Azalea Manor; in the weeks since the Kagawas departed, taking their household staff with them, everything has started to look rundown. One of the window shutters is partly ajar; when the wind picks up it takes to banging against the sill. He should secure the shutter, he knows, but it comforts him to have some sound of activity issuing from the house.
Azalea Manor. In ’38 when he stepped for the first time through its sliding doors into a grand room of marble floor and Venetian fireplace it was the photographs along the wall that had captured his attention rather than the mad mixture of Japanese and European architectural styles: all taken in the grounds of Azalea Manor while some party was in progress, Europeans and Japanese mixing uncomplicatedly. He had believed the promise of the photographs and felt unaccustomedly grateful to his English brother-in-law James Burton who had told him weeks earlier that he was no longer welcome at the Burton home in Delhi with the words, “There’s a property in Nagasaki. Belonged to George – an eccentric bachelor uncle of mine who died there a few months ago. Some Jap keeps sending me telegrams asking what’s to be done with it. Why don’t you live there for a while? As long as you like.” Konrad knew nothing about Nagasaki – except, to its credit, that it was not Europe and it was not where James and Ilse lived – and when he sailed into the harbour of the purple-roofed city laid out like an amphitheatre he felt he was entering a world of enchantment. Seven years later much of the enchantment remains – the glassy loveliness of frost flowers in winter, seas of blue azaleas in summer, the graceful elegance of the Euro-Japanese buildings along the seafront – but war fractures every view. Or closes off the view completely. Those who go walking in the hills have been warned against looking down towards the shipyard where the battleship Musashi is being built under such strict secrecy that heavy curtains have been constructed to block its view from all passers-by.
Functional, Hiroko Tanaka thinks, as she stands on the porch of her house in Urakami and surveys the terraced slopes, the still morning alive with the whirring of cicadas. If there were an adjective to best describe how war has changed Nagasaki, she decides, that would be it. Everything distilled or distorted into its most functional form. She walked past the vegetable patches on the slopes a few days ago and saw the earth itself furrowing in mystification: why potatoes where once there were azaleas? What prompted this falling-off of love? How to explain to the earth that it was more functional as a vegetable patch than a flower garden, just as factories were more functional than schools and boys were more functional as weapons than as humans.
An old man walks past with skin so brittle Hiroko thinks of a paper lantern with the figure of a man drawn on to it. She wonders how she looks to him, or to anyone. To Konrad. Just a gaunt figure in the drabbest of clothes like everyone else, she guesses, recalling with a smile Konrad’s admission that when he first saw her – dressed then, as now, in white shirt and grey monpe – he had wanted to paint her. Not paint a portrait of her, he added quickly. But the striking contrast she formed with the lush green of the Kagawas’ well-tended garden across which she had walked towards him ten months ago made him wish for buckets of thick, vibrant paint to pour on to her, waterfalls of colour cascading from her shoulders (rivers of blue down her shirt, pools of orange at her feet, emerald and ruby rivulets intersecting along her arms).
“I wish you had,” she said, taking his hand. “I would have seen the craziness beneath the veneer much sooner.” He slipped his hand out of hers with a glance that mixed apology and rebuke. The military police could come upon them at any moment.
The man with the brittle skin turns to look back at her, touching his own face as if trying to locate the young man beneath the wrinkles. He has seen this neighbourhood girl – the traitor’s daughter – several times in the last few months and each time it seems that the hunger they are all inhabiting conspires to make her more beautiful: the roundness of her childhood face has melted away completely to reveal the exquisiteness of sharply angled cheekbones, a mole resting just atop one of them. But somehow she escapes all traces of harshness, particularly when, as now, her mouth curves up on one side, and a tiny crease appears just millimetres from the edge of the smile, as though marking a boundary which becomes visible only if you try to slip past it. The old man shakes his head, aware of the foolishness he is exhibiting in staring at the young woman who is entirely unaware of him, but grateful, too, for something in the world which can still prompt foolishness in him.
The metallic cries of the cicadas are upstaged by the sound of the air siren, as familiar now as the call of insects. The New Bomb! the old man thinks, and turns to hurry away to the nearest air-raid shelter, all foolishness forgotten. Hiroko, by contrast, makes a sharp sound of impatience. Already, the day is hot. In the crowded air-raid shelters of Urakami it will be unbearable – particularly under the padded air-raid hoods which she views with scepticism but has to wear if she wants to avoid lectures from the Chairman of the Neighbourhood Association about setting a poor example to the children. It is a false alarm – it is almost always a false alarm. The other cities of Japan may have suffered heavily in aerial raids, but not Nagasaki. A few weeks ago she repeated to Konrad the received wisdom that Nagasaki would be spared all serious damage because it was the most Christian of Japan’s cities, and Konrad pointed out that there were more Christians in Dresden than in Nagasaki. She has started to take the air-raid sirens a little more seriously ever since. But really, it will be so hot in the shelter. Why shouldn’t she just stay at home? It is almost certainly a false alarm.
Why risk it, Konrad thinks. He retrieves his air-raid hood from inside the house and starts to walk swiftly towards the shelter which the Kagawas had built in the back garden. Halfway across the garden he stops and looks at the wall which divides the property from the vacated lot next door. He hasn’t checked on his birds, on the other side of the wall, since the last rain shower. Tossing the air-raid hood on the grass, he strides to the boundary wall and hoists himself over it, slinging his body low to reduce the chances of being seen by passers-by or the military police.
If anyone were to see him they would think he looked ridiculous – a gangling European tumbling over a wall, all arms and legs and hooded eyes, with hair and close-cropped beard of a colour so unexpected in Nagasaki that Hiroko Tanaka had thought, the first time she saw him, that the hair of Europeans rusted rather than greyed as they aged. Later she discovered that he was only twenty-nine – eight years older than she was.
The dry grass crackles beneath his feet – he feels as though he is snapping the backs of tiny creatures – as he walks across to the giant camphor tree to which the birds are fastened, rotating slowly in the faint breeze. It is Hiroko who first referred to his purple notebooks as birds – the day they met; the only time she has been inside his house. She lifted a notebook off his desk, splayed, and glided it around his room. The animation of her touch made him acutely conscious of the lifelessness of his words: sentences thrown down on paper year after year simply so he could pretend there was some purpose to his being here, some excuse for cowering in a world from which he felt so separate that nothing in it could ever implicate him.
But ever since Germany’s surrender shifted his status in Nagasaki from that of ally into some more ambiguous state which requires the military police to watch him closely the lifeless words have become potent enough to send him to prison. It says all there is to say about the paranoia of Imperial Japan: notebooks of research and observation about the cosmopolitan world that had briefly existed within a square mile of where he now lives are evidence of treason. Yoshi Watanabe made that clear to him when Germany’s surrender started to seem imminent. You write about ...
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Book Description Bond Street Books, 2009. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. First Edition. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0385666950
Book Description Bond Street Books, 2009. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 385666950