When worlds collide

Maya Jaggi in The Guardian:

Burnt-Shadows-by-Kamila-S-002 The huge ambition of Kamila Shamsie's fifth novel is announced in the prologue. As an unnamed captive is unshackled and stripped naked in readiness for the anonymity of an orange jumpsuit, he wonders: “How did it come to this?” The vastness of the question as applied to a prisoner in Guantánamo is a challenge to which this epic yet skilfully controlled novel rises in oblique and unexpected ways.

Unfolding in four sections, the novel traces the shared histories of two families, from the final days of the second world war in Japan, and India on the brink of partition in 1947, to Pakistan in the early 1980s, New York in the aftermath of 11 September and Afghanistan in the wake of the ensuing US bombing campaign. At its heart is the beautifully drawn Hiroko Tanaka, first seen in Nagasaki in August 1945 as a young schoolteacher turned munitions factory worker whose artist father is branded a traitor for his outbursts against the emperor and kamikaze militarism. She falls in love with a lanky, russet-haired idealist from Berlin, Konrad Weiss, with whom she shares – along with other key characters – a love of languages. But their romance is curtailed by the flash of light that renders Konrad a shadow on stone and burns the birds on Hiroko's kimono into her back, a fusion of “charred silk, seared flesh”.

Hiroko finds refuge in Old Delhi, in the twilight of the raj, with her dead fiancé's sister Ilse and her English husband James Burton. Befriended by the unhappy Ilse, Hiroko is more drawn to Sajjad Ali Ashraf, a dashing Muslim employee who agrees to teach her Urdu. Her hosts discourage their romance (“His world is so alien to yours”), even misinterpreting a moment of tenderness as one of predation by Sajjad. Yet the couple grow closer as partition sunders Sajjad from Delhi as shockingly as Nagasaki was lost to Hiroko.

More here.