2009 Orange Prize

Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie

  Shortlisted for the Orange Prize 2009

I can’t describe the plot of  Burnt Shadows better than the blurb on the back cover of the book, so I have copied it here:

August 9th, 1945, Nagasaki. Hiroko Tanakasteps out onto her veranda, taking in the view of the terraced slopes leading up to the sky. Wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, she is twenty-one, in love withthe man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss. In a split second, the world turns white. In the next, it explodes withthe sound of fire and the horror of realisation. In the numbing aftermath of a bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. In search of new beginnings, she travels to Delhi to find Konrad’s relatives, and falls in love with their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from who she starts to learn Urdu. 

 As the years unravel, new homes replace those left behind and old wars are seamlessly usurped by new conflicts. But the shadows of history – personal, political – are cast over the entwined worlds of two families as they are transported from Pakistan to New York, and in the novel’s astonishing climax, to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11.

Burnt Shadows is an epic book, spanning both generations and continents. There were many amazing sections in this book; the first chapter in particular was incredible, the subtle building of tension was brilliantly achieved, and the horror of the atomic blast, was sensitively written.

I loved the central character, Hiroko; she overcame so many tragedies, but remained a believable stalwart throughout. Some of her quotes were particularly thought provoking:

‘Sometimes I look at my son and think perhaps the less we have to “overcome” the more we feel aggrieved.’

The female characters in the book were far superior to the male ones. They seemed to have a depth, and realness lacking in all the male ones.

My main grievance with this book was that the ambitiousness was too great; trying to capture so many different cultures in one book, led to too much explanation, at the expensive of the flow of the story. In many places the book came across as contrived. The plot seemed to have been forced around major historic events: Nagasaki, Indian Partition and 9/11. These events were so far apart, both in time, and distance that it didn’t work for me. The credibility of the book just kept sliding away, the more I read. Would a 91-year-old lady really have travelled all the way from Asia to New York on her own, and then ‘run around’ New York like a person a quarter of her age?

Despite my criticisms there were many important issues raised by this book. The ambitiousness of this writing project deserves some recognition, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this won the Orange Prize. I’ll let you know once I’ve read all the other shortlisted books if I still think this is a contender.

Recommended for the first chapter, and a few other moments of genius, but be prepared to wade through some of the slower sections.



I noticed that some of Kamila Shamsie’s books have been shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Has anyone read any of her earlier books?

What did you think of this one? Do you think it might be a contender for the Orange prize this year?

19 replies on “Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie”

First, don’t blame you on just using the blurb…a plot like this would be really hard to boil down. My thought as I was reading it was “that is a BIG book”. Big as in covering a huge amount of history, cultures, people’s lives, etc. I am disappointed that it didn’t rise to the challege. If it had, it could potentially be one of those books you never forget. I still think it may be worth the effort though. I love books like this!

Sandy – I agree – if it had worked it would have been stunning, but I’m not sure how anyone could manage to pull off something like that – even if it had been longer it would still have felt a bit faked, by just trying to fit all those major events into one book.

Beth – Good luck with your request! When is it published in the US?

I haven’t read any of her books. Normally I like multi-generational sagas but I can see that this was just too much time to cover. Good, honest review. I look forward to the rest of the ‘oranges’.

Margot – I like multi-generational sagas too, it was the multi-continent saga part that just stretched it too far for me.

Your reviews are so profoundly honest. You manage to give praise without sounding insincere – and to give criticism without being harsh.


Molly – Thank you so much! It is really nice to be appreciated. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep it up in future reviews, and try to avoid the negativity which sometimes creeps in when I don’t enjoy reading a book.

Well if I thought that the beginning was slow. I don’t know how I’m gonna go through the whole book now that you said there are even slower sections.

Lizzy – I agree the final section was the weakest. It was just too far fetched. I don’t want to add any spoilers here, so I won’t go into it, but it is great we agree on that!

Mee – Have you found any enjoyable sections yet?

Do you like any of the characters? I loved Hiroko, especially in the beginning, but if you don’t like her, then you may struggle with the book. Good luck with finishing it.

its really an interesting multi-generational view and a review of the effects of wars on the lives of common people. its a great attempt!

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