Burnt Shadows - Book of the Month
by Kamila Shamsie
The cosmopolitan city of Nagasaki was unique in Japan for its International Club, its intermarriages between European men and Japanese women, and its English-language newspaper. A cathedral and a synagogue nestled within its graceful but confusing mixture of European and Japanese architecture. An amphitheatre of purple roofs, frost flowers in winter and a sea of blue azaleas in summer lent enchantment to a harbour deep enough to accommodate a shipyard.
Hiroko Tanaka will be 21 in August 1945. The day is cloudy; there has been an air raid warning. A terrible bomb has been dropped on Hiroshima, and everyone is crowding into the air raid shelters or into the cathedral. But Hiroko is at home, dreaming of the end of the war, when she will marry Konrad Weiss, the writer and philosopher whose book she has been translating from German into Japanese. Hiroko has recently been made to work in a munitions factory, but today the workers have a day off, ostensibly as a holiday, but in reality because Japan has no more steel with which to keep the factory going.
Konrad Weiss knows there has been an air raid warning, and about the bomb on Hiroshima. But if they are to die he wants to be with Hiroko. He finds her at her home, and Hiroko takes him up to her bedroom. Konrad longs to make love to her in this moment, when the rest of the world is empty and silent. But he leaves her, perhaps because he doesn't want the rest of their life to begin like that, or perhaps because the all-clear has sounded and her father may return at any moment. Konrad would not have wished his relationship with his future father-in-law to begin badly. He sets off to walk to the Cathedral (one of the priests is a friend who is going to lend him a book). Hiroko feels so full of happiness that she opens the chest where her mother's clothes have been preserved, and, with sensuous pleasure she slips onto her naked body a white silk kimono on which three birds have been beautifully embroidered. Her body from the neck down is a white silk column with three black cranes flying elegantly across her back. She looks out towards the mountains: she thinks Nagasaki looks more beautiful than ever, lying beneath sunlight that has broken through the clouds. She runs to the verandah hoping to catch a last glimpse of Konrad as he walks away down the hill. It is then that the world turns white.
All that is left of anyone in or near the Cathedral is the melted fat from their bodies, burned like shadows into walls and onto rocks.
Hiroko, almost a mile from the epicentre of the explosion, suffers deep burns to her back, deepest where the black birds had been embroidered onto the white silk. She is hospitalised in Tokyo for months with burns and radiation sickness. Eventually she recovers and joins the other young women who party with American servicemen in the night spots of Tokyo. After all, the war is over. Hiroko and other young girls who have been exposed to radiation from the bombs are known as "hibakusha": unsuitable as brides or mothers, unlikely to bear healthy children, and who may become helpless invalids within a few years. Hiroko cuts her hair to just below her ears, smokes cigarettes, drinks cocktails and dances the nights away. But one day The Bomb is mentioned, and a kindly young American explains apologetically that the atomic bombs had to be dropped on Japan in order to save thousands of American lives. Hiroko knows she has to leave, she has to get away, but where is she to go? Hearing that a traveller is about to leave for Delhi, where Konrad's sister lives, she packs her few belongings and sets off on what is to be a lifelong journey which would have surprised even herself , had she known about it in advance.
Kamila Shamsie, author of BURNT SHADOWS, is an extraordinary novelist, able to absorb her readers attention to the exclusion of all else until her story is told. Her knowledge and understanding of international politics and her ability to weave her immaculate plot into a book of immense scope without losing a shred of her intellectual compassion and sensitivity is surely the mark of a great writer. It is certainly the mark of a great storyteller. Her comprehension of language, her sly use of comedy, her mastery of English, and the book's capacity to wring the withers, all would have set her apart. But her wry perception of race, manners, and the fine points of love and marriage, motherhood and brotherhood, in different peoples, define her work as evocative of what is most significant in our global environment, and in our new century.
Read our interview with Kamila Shamsie.