It is August 1945 in Nagasaki, Japan when we first meet Hiroko Tanaka. Young and in love, she is engaged to Konrad Burton, a German who finds himself in Nagasaki by way of India. On August 9, he is gone and Hiroko is forever scarred, physically and mentally.
With no fiancée or father, Hiroko travels to India to build a connection with a never met link of Konrad’s – his half-sister, Elizabeth Burton, and her small family. It is here that she is introduced to Sajjad, who works for the Burtons, and her life changes as she opens up in ways that she had not expected. We travel with Hiroko through India, to Pakistan following partition as she builds a life for herself, her husband and eventually their son. It is not only her personal strength, but her gift of language that helps her through.
Over the course of the novel, we watch as Hiroko continues to approach her life with the convictions that she first learned in Japan, we also follow Elizabeth as she moves to New York and becomes the woman she was always meant to be. And we learn even more about these women as we watch their children, and grandchild, make choices that alter their lives forever. Through these characters we are given a front row seat to the events often read about in newspapers and seen on news brief, taking us all the way to Afghanistan and New York, and a world after 9/11.
As I first read the synopsis of this book, I have to admit I raised my eyebrow – could a writer really take me from the bomb dropping on Nagasaki, to India, to Pakistan all the way to a post-9/11 New York without losing me. It seemed so far reaching, maybe even a little over-ambitious. Sure, there is always a suspension of disbelief when reading fiction, but when a story uses historical events that we know (or think we know) so well, it can sometimes be hard to get past what we think would happen, and the possibilities that book characters can be so heavily involved in so many historical touchstone (I think of Heyday by Kurt Anderson) can also make it difficult to swallow if not done well.
But Kamila Shamsie does it. She develops and weaves these characters in such a way, that I feel for each of them, understand and sympathize with their personal stories. Even as they contradict each other, I can see each one’s side (whether or not I agree is a different story).
Following up on my recent post Where in the World Wednesday, through Shamsie’s prose I was there in Nagasaki looking at the notebook birds, in Delhi when Hiroko reveals her burns to Sajjad, even gazing out over an Afghan training camp. The book also gave me different perspectives on historical events without lecturing me, just showing me how they affected those who lived this history from the most basic levels of their everyday lives.
The book may not include the easiest of subjects, but Shamsie’s flowing and engaging writing makes it easier to get through to find the heart of the book (at least it did for me). It also raises important questions about war, its consequences and what motivates people to do what they do.
This book was an Orange Prize Finalist.