Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Hibakusha are the surviving victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (including those not yet born but carried by pregnant women who survived the bombings). Hiroko Tanaka, the main character in Kamila Shamsie's novel Burnt Shadows is one such survivor. She lost her father and her German fiance in Nagasaki. When she has recovered from her own injuries and the war has ended, she sets out to find her fiance's half sister, Elizabeth, who is living in Delhi, married to James, an Englishman. Hiroko and Elizabeth become close friends. As the novel follows their relationship over the ensuing decades, we learn more about their spouses, children and even a grandchild. The two families become linked in evermore intricate and challenging ways. A pivotal part of the story involves the CIA. It is difficult for me to know how realistic and accurate that part of the story is.

The settings in the novel are many. In addition to Japan and India, the events take the reader to Istanbul, the newly established Pakistan, New York in the aftermath of 9/11 and Afghanistan. The author herself was born in Pakistan.

Shamsia has managed to link the bombing at Nagasaki with the aftermath of 9/11 in a very powerful way. In addition to being a good story, this novel raises some fundamental questions that we need to answer as we continue to face war and the nuclear threat. I think it is telling that I am still asking myself if the events of the last few chapters could have been otherwise. What would I have done in those same circumstances?

Watch a brief interview with Kamila Shamsie here.

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