Kamila Shamsie’s bold and ambitious fifth novel, Burnt Shadows, begins in Guantanamo prison and goes back to the bombing of Nagasaki before sweeping us forward over sixty years and across three continents. Its heroine, Hiroko, is a gifted Japanese linguist in love with a German, Konrad. He dies in the atomic explosion over Nagasaki, but she survives, although the embroidered cranes of her mother’s kimono are burnt indelibly on her back and heart. Forever defined by disaster in her native country, Hiroko travels to Delhi, where Konrad’s estranged half-sister is unhappily married to a British man, James. Hiroko’s vulnerability and honesty make her a welcome guest for Elizabeth, and when she begins to learn Urdu from James’s servant Sajjad Ashraf, an unusual cross-cultural romance begins.
This first third of the novel is an arresting achievement, combining an extraordinary heroine, an exceptional set of circumstances and an almost Forsterian ear for the inadvertent comedy of clashing cultures. Hiroko’s flight to India in the last year of British rule seems confident but is an act