Friday, 18 October 2013

When long shadows fall

It's difficult to know what to say about books like this. Like a teacher, you want to say 'tried hard', 'competent' and 'literate', but none of that means much beyond the most damning assessment of a novel: I didn't really enjoy it. And yet it seems a shame that there is so little to say, because Kamila Shamsie has clearly tried so hard to make this an ambitious and thought-provoking read; adjectives that professional reviewers have not hesitated in applying, but which I do not think are true.

At the heart of this novel is the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. The arresting opening sequence witnesses the swift destruction of Hiroko's world as the man to whom she has just declared her love is killed and she herself is left with severe, bird-shaped burns down her back and the lingering fear of what the radiation poisoning has done to her body. This is an excellent piece of writing - although even here, I was left wondering whether it is possible to write a description of a nuclear attack without it being shocking and memorable. In a sense, Shamsie has taken the easy road with this opening scene, which certainly compels one to read on. However, as I did, I found the novel progressively disappointing. It is broad in scope, touching upon Partition, 9/11 and Guantanamo Bay, but muted in theme and character. The only one of the cast who truly engaged me was Hiroko, despite the array of potentially interesting individuals such as her half-Pakistani son, Raza, and US structural engineer, Kim, who is shellshocked after 9/11, because her engineering knowledge made her certain the buildings were going to fall before they did. So, as Hiroko ages and fades from the narrative, my interest faded with her. The juxtaposition of violent acts in various countries and the different groups of oppressors and oppressed was clearly meant to be saying something profound about the way we conceptualise who the 'terrorists' are, but to me this is a message that has been articulated many times, and I learnt nothing new from this tick-box approach.

Ironically - despite a couple of unjust murders - nothing in this novel ever comes close to the horror of Hiroko's youthful experience in Nagasaki, and perhaps this is part of the point. When Hiroko herself tries to put Nagasaki in perspective late in the novel, stating that the death toll accounted for only 0.01% of the deaths in the Second World War, Kim, the granddaughter of her old friend Ilse, objects: quoting statistics does not reduce the horror of her experience or the fact that it happened to her. Kim is right, but the reader still feels uncomfortable; why does Hiroko's experience seem to matter so much more than the countless deaths during Partition or the much smaller death toll from 9/11? Ultimately, because there is no character that matters to us so much that suffers in either of those two events. Shamsie is getting at something important here, but like Hiroko, the theme fades and is forgotten. Novels are 'supposed' to show not tell, but this is one of the many novels that I feel could have done with a little more reflection; because it lacks it, the characters and their choices become easily forgettable. (Indeed, the only reason I remember Kim's existence is because of the unpleasant and bigoted turn her character takes near the end of the narrative - if Shamsie intended her actions to be understandable, I'm afraid she missed the mark with me.)

I'm unsure why a novel like this, supposed to be one of her best, justified Shamsie's inclusion on the Granta 2013 list, but then I don't feel that most of that list deserved to be there. Having been reminded recently what good writing feels like, however, I'm less inclined to cut slack to novels that feel to me to be paint-by-numbers; well-written and well-intentioned, but with very little to say.

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