Monday, July 19, 2010

BOOK: Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

It's still July, and time for anther Orange book. I've had this one for a while, and was saving it to read in July. I love when a book I've been looking forward to lives up to expectations, and yet makes you wonder why you waited so long to read it.

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie, 370 pages

Orange July (shortlist 2009); review copy from RandomHouse

 Just this easily, everything worthwhile in a life can be erased.

What an ambitious book! Beginning in Nagasaki in 1945 and spanning decades and countries, ending up in post 9/11 New York City, Burnt Shadows examines war and displacement through its effect on two families.

There are several distinct time frames and locations, and I thought some parts worked better than others. Japan and Delhi, the first two sections were my favorites. Shamsie's writing and the characters she created were so vivid and real. I liked how she used the 'enemies' from World War 2, Germany and Japan, for the two female lead characters, and then some 'smaller' events, like the Nagasaki bomb (not the Hiroshima) and Indian partition in 1947 (it was a good thing for the English to leave, right?) to showcase the large effects on everyday people in war. What makes a person feel a part of a country? Is the English boy born and raised in India not allowed to love the only place he's been born?

(Snarkily, I wondered how we missed travelling to Vietnam in the 1960s for a visit to that war. It seemed to be one of the major war events between 1947 and 1982, and we could have seen the characters for a little stop over in the missing 30 years. Wasn't the CIA involved there too?)

Moving the action to Pakistan in the early 1980s provides western readers with a look at what was going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Soviet invasion,  how the Americans got involved, and how young men could have been caught in training camps. The last two sections, particularly the post 9/11 became a little too much about espionage/CIA and less about the characters I wanted to read more about. Much of the action and characters had moved to New York City and the story changed. Shamsie seemed to be trying to connect too many threads and wars into one neat finale. She kept the same themes and symbols from the first sections, the families that were so entwined, but by making the story so big, she lost a bit of the character development. Plus, her main characters were so old by 2001 and their children and grandchildren took over the action, and I wasn't as interested in them.

I still really enjoyed this book, even with the changing last section. After a run of mysteries and Newbery winners, I felt like a grown-up reader devouring a very good book, with adult themes and a plot that had me thinking of people and countries around the world. Thanks Orange July and RandomHouse, for an intelligent, engaging read.