We Are Each Other’s Spiders

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Permit me to note before I begin that I am generally no gusher. It’s more fun to write criticism than praise, and the hyperbolic rhapsodizing common to contemporary book reviews can make me a little grumpy. Now, I hope those caveats let me say the necessary:

Burnt Shadows is the most admirable new novel I have read in a long time, a work of astonishing naturalism, wisdom, and grace. Kamila Shamsie’s ambitions and skills vault her easily into the ranks of Michael Ondaatje and Amitav Ghosh, writers who have shown us the hidden landscapes along history’s major highways, and done so by way of intricately constructed narratives.

The novel opens with Hiroko Tanaka, who is twenty-one when an atomic bomb is dropped on her hometown, Nagasaki. The bombing leaves her an orphan, with of swooping cranes burnt into patches on her back, shadows of the kimono she had slipped on moments before the world went white.

That is, however, an introduction Hiroko would disdain for reducing her to a mere “hibakusha”—bomb survivor—“the most hated word in her vocabulary. And the most powerful.” She had some dreams the bomb didn’t kill: to go to Tokyo, cut off her hair, smoke cigarettes, be “a modern girl.” Beyond that? She hadn’t gotten around to imagining it yet, but she spoke three languages with ease and was in love with Konrad Weiss, a German with a poetic outlook, so her fate was bound to involve the sort of cosmopolitanism Nagasaki was famous for before war imposed patriotism’s provinciality on its citizens.

Determined to bury the bomb’s mark, Hiroko leaves Japan. 1947 finds her disembarking a boat in India just as pre-Independence tremors are peaking and the subcontinent’s topsides are about to split off to form Pakistan. There she finds kindred spirits in Konrad’s sister, Ilse Burton, and in a fellow polyglot, Sajjad, employed by Ilse’s husband. Via Sajjad, Hiroko ends up living much of her adult life in Pakistan; owing to Ilse, she ends up in New York at the time of 9/11.

It might seem far-fetched that the life of one high-spirited woman might be caught up in and fashioned by three of the major cataclysms of the past hundred years—but in Shamsie’s hands, it’s not. Her gift is to show how those events, which we think of as shaping the modern political map, shaped these individuals. In each of the book’s four sections (Nagasaki, 1945; Delhi, 1947; Pakistan, 1982-3; New York and Afghanistan, 2001-2), geopolitics recombine with her characters’ essential peculiarities; the resulting decisions come to seem inevitable, since Shamsie has so successfully immersed the reader in their natures.

The governing image of Burnt Shadows is the spider, “beloved of Muslims,” as Sajjad explains to his non-Muslim friends: “it wove its web—quick as lightening—over the mouth of the cave where Mohammed and his friend were hiding when they fled from Mecca, and so convinced their pursuers that no one had entered the cave in a long time.”

“We are each other’s spiders,” Ilse Burton’s son Harry says, late in the book, to Sajjad’s son, Raza, by which time the metaphor has come to represent the ways in which Ilse, Hiroko, Sajjad, and their descendents have saved one another. “[S]helter provided (three times Ilse gave Hiroko a home: in Delhi, Karachi, New York), strength transferred (Ilse would never have left the life she hated if not for Hiroko), disaster elided (James and Ilse ensured Sajjad and Hiroko were well away from Partition’s bloodletting),” these are some of the ways Shamsie’s characters protect one another from terrible vagaries that have come looking for them.

They don’t accomplish this with huge gestures, though; when they effect a rescue, they do it modestly, even unintentionally. Condemnation happens in a similar fashion. Despite the myriad opportunities for narrative heroism, Burnt Shadows is, to its credit, a determinedly anti-heroic book. Shamsie’s characters act as much on their fears as their ambitions, and more on either of those than on their convictions, though they are mostly loyal and capable of love. Even the most courageous, Hiroko, seeks only to rescue herself when she flees her homeland. The youngest, in a pessimistic turn, lack all conviction, as though their morals have been put to sea by modern life. But their self-interest makes them believable and accessible, and their actions reveal what so rarely seems clear when we read about tragedies happening far away: This is how history is made—of speculations, misapprehensions, and intentions good and bad.

And, apparently, of metaphors. Cranes, spiders, clouds: Konrad, on his way to propose to Hiroko, “looks up towards Urakami Cathedral with its stone figures that stand against the sky—on overcast days their greyness suggests each cloud is an incipient statue waiting for a sculptor to pull it down and hew it into solidity.” It’s a break in those clouds that makes it possible for the Americans to drop the bomb that day, with the Cathedral as epicenter. The novel thrills with such literary artistry. Many of the key turns, to the reader’s surprise and delicious frustration, happen in throwaway gestures—an American bends to return a pair of shoes he borrowed to wade through a fish market; a young man signals to some cricket players that he’ll retrieve their ball; a pile of stuffed rabbits and bears spills onto an interstate—that return, bloated with horrendous, inadvertent, significance.

The Afghan telling of the stuffed animals, for example, describes how car after car slowed to drive around the moonlit pile. The American listening assumes he and his carful of Middle Eastern mates drove over them, “found the image grotesque, and knew she couldn’t indicate as much without appearing to suffer from misguided American empathy—cluster bomb the Afghans but for God’s sake don’t drive over the pink bunny rabbits!” He will not tell her, for fear of being thought a thief, that they stopped, picked up the toys, and sent them home. The son he never met may be sleeping with his own “soft blue bunny,” while the American, crushed by all the many things she cannot know and he will not tell, becomes increasingly afraid that this man is a terrorist.

You’ve got it wrong! you want to scream at them as they blunder on the pages. Go back! Ask a better question! Explain yourself!

Is this really how life works? I want to believe it’s not true. If one person can convince me, though, it is Shamsie.

Padma Viswanathan's most recent novel is The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. More at her website: WWW.PADMAVISWANATHAN.COM More from this author →