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.
Shamsie takes readers on a tour de force in this examination of the impact of war, following a trajectory from the devastation of Nagasaki in WWII through the conflict-ridden formation of Pakistan in the late 1940s to post-9/11 Manhattan and war-torn Afghanistan. Konrad Weiss, living in Nagasaki in the summer of 1945, hires a local woman, Hiroko Tanaka, to help him write a book about the city. The romance that blossoms is cut short when the atom bomb falls, killing Konrad, and after a while, Hiroko, feeling she can no longer stay in her country, travels to India to find Konrad's sister, Ilse, the wife of a British lawyer enjoying the privileges of the British raj's final days. From there, Shamsie brilliantly interweaves the lives of an array of characters as she brings the story forward to the 1980s, then to the beginning of the 21st century, exploring the clashes between loyalty to family, homeland and cause. Shamsie's unsparing look at how individuals respond when war affects their world makes for an intriguing, heartrending tale of human connection.