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April Book Club: Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows

April 1, 2010

Welcome to GAB’s first monthly book club! Feel free to use this post as an open thread for discussion of the novel and to post any comments or questions you have about it here, but if you’re not sure where to start, here are some ideas to get the discussion going:

  • What did you think of the characters?

Hiroko Tanaka is of course the most clearly drawn; I found her at once remarkable and remarkably average. Her greatest strength seemed to come from her ability simply to keep moving, while the extraordinary nature of her experiences is what makes that movement extraordinary. Then again, the seemingly extraordinary things she experiences happened to many people: that is what makes them historical events. This tension between the ordinary and the remarkable not only makes for a compelling protagonist but also suggests a more thematic issue related to the question of what happens when history becomes personal.

Other characters seem less complete. Kim seems to stand mostly for the fears and insecurities of her generation of Americans. When Hiroko tells her that she is “the kindest, most generous woman I know”, I don’t understand why (though having spent so many pages so close to Hiroko, I’m inclined to believe she has good reasons for saying so).

  • How much tension did you feel while reading the book?

I found myself constantly needing to know what happened next, even though I already knew what the end would be: the tension came from wondering how exactly it would happen. The story of the bombing of Nagasaki was marked with elements from history so that even if you had not read any blurb that indicated what was going, if you were familiar with what happened when the bomb was dropped, you soon knew what day it was. The air raids, the description of the weather: all of this contributed to a very precise mapping of what was to come, and when.

In later chapters, the foreknowledge was less precise, provided mostly by the brief prologue. I’m not sure that one section was more effective than the other, but the effect was certainly different. Did you find one to be more moving?

  • What did you think about the book cover?

You may have noticed that the UK and US paperback editions have quite different designs.

Buy from Powell's

I’ve mostly used the image on the left, not only because it’s the one I own but also because it seems to represent Hiroko’s journey, while the one on the right (the US edition) seems to fit too well into stereotyped Western images of Japanese women.

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  1. April 1, 2010 10:22 pm

    I enjoyed this book so much I reviewed it twice. Well, sort of. I wrote a standard review for Marie Claire India then I wrote about writing the review in a review of a necklace pendant for Feminist Review because the book itself had already been reviewed on the blog. I thought the book started out really strong, but slipped about 100 pages from the end. Shamsie is an excellent writer and her characters were wonderfully developed, but as the location shifts from Asia to the US, the storylines for the characters start to get sloppy lose some of their draw. That doesn’t, however, mean the book isn’t a fantastic read, because it is, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find this book makes its way to the big screen.

    • April 2, 2010 3:59 am

      I know what you mean about it getting a bit sloppy at the end, though I found that wanting to know, finally, how the prologue came to be meant that I was reading fast enough not to be too troubled by that if you see what I mean. Do you think it was just having too many characters and threads that led to that looseness at the end? Or is it more directly connected to it being set in North America?

      • April 5, 2010 4:58 am

        Neither. I think the characters weren’t as fleshed out as they could have been, the dialogue became stilted, and the storyline itself got to be too predictable, even though it was attempting to be just the opposite. I felt like Shamsie was trying to beat a deadline, you know? Like she had this idea and not enough time in which to expertly execute it. So the beginning to middle was great and then the ending ran out of steam.

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