From a writer’s perspective, this is one scary book, so intricately plotted, making use of historical references and yet remaining intensely personal.
It took me a long time to get round to reading Burnt Shadows, mainly because I had been told that I could expect a very ‘heavy read’. I saw Kamila speak at last year’s Wimbledon Bookfest. No one else could have recovered so wonderfully after keeping the audience waiting for almost an hour. She had imagined that the journey from North London by cab would take, oh, an hour at most. In the two and a half hours it took, she thought she could have got as far as Birmingham or Bath. Not on a wet Friday evening, we all nodded knowingly. Within ten minutes, after learning how she was forced to choose between a home in Pakistan, New York and London (because she could only afford one really good set of kitchen knives, and you should try getting them through customs) we were all firmly on her side. I was able to inject her warmth and humour into my reading of the book, with the sound of her wonderful speaking voice in my mind.
The pace is beautifully balanced. I felt a little cheated when the sections fast-forwarded through Hiroko’s marriage when I wanted to linger, but Kamila’s use of recall filled in enough of the gaps. I loved the fact that we were able to see how the relationship between two main women characters developed, what they had had in common transcending all barriers of class and culture. It was a relationship that left an envying granddaughter longing for old age, when you no longer care what people think.
The ending of the novel is challenging. Kamila is brave enough to leave loose ends hanging. I turned over an extra page, thinking this might be another fast-forward, or that there might be a last chapter, in the same way that there is often a secret track at the end of an album. There wasn’t.
The book may touch on significant world events, travelling from Nagasaki to modern-day Afghanistan, but they are linked together through family relationships, and it is those relationships that will stay with you long after the book is finished.
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