‘Ambitious’ is a word that crops up in many reviews of Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel and rightly so. Of the writers who have the metaphorical balls to tackle the Big Moments of political history, most have literal ones too. Shamsie is to be applauded, then, for eschewing the expectation that as a woman writer, her canvas should be small, domestic and personal. The narrative of Burnt Shadows, whilst far from free of the small, domestic and personal lives of its protagonists is strung upon three events of global significance: the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, the partition of India in 1947 and the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
While one admires the ambition of such a project, however, the execution leaves much to be desired. At the heart of the novel is a Japanese woman, Hiroko. Young and in love with a German man, Konrad Weiss, her leap into love, marriage and sexual awakening is cut brutally short by the bomb which devastates the city, incinerates her father, and leaves nothing of her fiancé but a sooty shadow burnt into a rock.
She flees Japan to Delhi, to live with Konrad’s half-sister, Ilse who, under the name of Elizabeth Burton is (unhappily) married to a stiff-upper-lipped Brit, James Burton. The third party of their household is the educated and sensitive Muslim tutor to the Burton’s young son, Henry, called Sajjad. Hiroko and Sajjad fall in love, and intend to go back to Delhi from Mussourie when Partition happens, making it impossible for Sajjad to return.
The third section concerns Hiroko and Sajjad’s life in Pakistan in the early 80s. Their son, Raza, is a gifted student, but his bright career prospects seem to be jinxed by panic attacks brought on by exams. Into their life returns Henry, now a grown American man called Harry, who works for the CIA and seeks out the beloved Urdu tutor of his childhood, and his Japanese wife.
The last section, set in – variously – New York, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Canada in 2001-2, follows the intertwined destinies Raza (who now works as an interpreter for Harry in a CIA-like organisation), and Harry’s daughter, Kim, who is now a feisty, young, single civil engineer.
There is never a moment in this tale of three generations where the possibility that these lives might not, in fact, be entangled by destiny is entertained. Shamsie hammers home the point, sometimes symbolically, at other times explicitly putting the words into her character’s heads, such as when Harry muses: “James Burton watched with dismay the collapse of Empire; Harry Burton was working for the collapse of Communism; and Kim Burton only wanted to know how to build, one edifice at a time, the construction process being all that mattered, not whether the outcome was mosque or art gallery or prison.”
The denouement is clear from the outset. The prologue is a description of a man in a cell, stripped naked, waiting to be interrogated: “When he is dressed again, he suspects, he will be wearing an orange jumpsuit.” The reader knows this must be Raza – for what other fate could there be for a young male Muslim in a twenty-first century novel? – the only question being whether he will turn out to be a ‘real’ terrorist or an innocent ensnared in the net?
Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Kamila Shamsie, hailed as one of the bright new voices of Pakistani fiction, felt the imperative to write her ‘9/11-book.’ Others have felt no less impelled – Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushie among them. As the planes crashed into the twin towers, one could almost hear writers around the world cracking their knuckles and thinking, my god what a great image. Even for those who don’t write about it directly, it’s a powerful presence: Hari Kunzru, for example, had to repeatedly clarify that though his novel My Revolutions is about terrorism it is pre-9/11. It is the defining image of our time, as the mushroom-cloud was for an earlier generation. In Burnt Shadows, we get both.
This novel is disturbing for all the wrong reasons. The first is to do with what, for want of a better phrase, I call the lyricisation of violence. The burnt shadows of the title refer to the scars left on Hiroko’s back by the Nagasaki blast. The three black cranes on her silk kimono are indelibly imprinted into her skin, some kind of nuclear stigmata. She finds them ugly, but to others they are alluring, even erotic. The moral dubiousness of such an evocation is never explored in the novel, to an extent that one wonders if the writer herself felt its discomfort.
The second, even more disturbing aspect, is that, quite simply, her characters are all far too nice – and this is where the question of gender (of both writer and her characters) is key. The women in the story – Ilse, Hiroko and Kim – end up living together in New York: forming a cross-generational fried green tomato, ya-ya sisterhood of the kind so beloved of Oprah bestsellers. So far, so female. But the men, in particular Raza and Harry float through their CIA-paramilitary lives with souls unscarred, consciences barely scratched, let alone brutalised. At one point, Raza asks Harry where he would draw the line in extracting information from terrorist suspects. “ ‘What wouldn’t I do if it was effective?’ Harry said thoughtfully. ‘Almost nothing. Children are out of bounds, rape is out of bounds, but otherwise… what works, works.’” Notwithstanding his pricks of conscience (“When I’m dead, Raza, and my daughter asks you what kind of man her father really was, don’t tell her I said that”, “We make a desolation and call it peace.”), these are the words of a man who has killed, and if not tortured himself at the very least witnessed its after-effects.
In a long essay in this month’s New York Review of Books, journalist Mark Danner quotes extensively from the International Red Cross Report on the Treatment of Fourteen ‘High Value Detainees’ in CIA custody, published in February 2007. The clinical recitation of the specific techniques used in Guantánamo, sanctioned and endorsed by Pentagon and Justice department officials up to and including the President, George W. Bush, are chilling, to put it mildly. Harry Burton is one who endorses these, in Bush’s words, “alternative techniques”. Raza is a young man sufficiently enticed by the glamour of the gun that he seriously considers becoming an Afghani jihadist. Yet neither is shown to be anything but basically good, decent men. Is it that women writers simply cannot ‘do’ the dark stuff? Is it that women, good-hearted as they are, will always choose redemption over damnation, empathy over alienation, sentiment over cold fact? If so, perhaps we had better leave the terrorist novels and the war fiction, the bombs and the violence and the terror, to the writers with the balls to peer into humanities’ dark side and report back from the abyss.