A nameless prisoner stands naked, trembling with fear.  The place is Guantanamo Bay, the question foremost in his mind: “How did it come to this?”.

While that is undoubtedly the question of our time, it’s one that been asked at many times and in many places before:  Japan 1945, India 1947, Pakistan 1982, USA 2001.  The four sections of Shamsie novel are devoted to the momentous events of those times and the fear and helpless fury of the innocent trapped in the anonymous tide of history.  People are reduced to symbols or labels without reference to the details:  a man in an orange jumpsuit, an atom bomb survivor, a partitionee, a Muslim, a mujahideen, a mercenary, a traitor ….

Shamsie, however, subverts  that view with her story of Hiroko, the Japanese woman, who having survived the atom bomb at Nagaski, spends the rest of her life moving from country to country – Japan, India, Pakistan –  fleeing the possibility of a repeat experience.   Ironically she finally seeks refuge in the country that destroyed her life in 1945 and is about to do so again in the aftermath of 2001.

Make no mistake. Hiroko and the members of  her post-war family will challenge the absolutes of the western world view, at times with a breathtaking deftness.  A single sentence and I’m questioning the accepted wisdom re the atom bomb attacks on Japan.    What about contemporary prejudices – have I been corrupted by anti-Islamic propaganda and if so, how far?

Which is not to say that the west is the empire of evil and the east its antithesis.  Questions of both sides are raised,  subtly through the story line, not through didactism.    One of the most brutal scenes is when Raza, Hiroko’s son, is rejected by a Pakistani girl because he is of mixed-race; he’s not Pak (pure), and may be damaged-goods because of his mother’s nuclear past.  Stamped as an outsider, this blow determines his life course and  sends him rushing to the dangerous people who will accept him as one of their own …. even though he is not.

The novel is full of such paradox.  Estrangements and betrayals as much as part of friendship as of emnity.  The body language of a concerned father misconstrued and he is shot dead.  The retrieving of a cricket ball interpreted as a signal to an assassin.   This latter incident forcing me to put the book down for a couple of days as I was consumed with Hiroko’s fury at a world in which individuals cannot live untouched by its malign politics.

This same incident signals a change in pace and tone  – the novel moving from literary fiction to political thriller as events accelerate towards the capture of  the prisoner seen in the prologue.  With no distance in time, argumentation becomes more overt and emotive as events remain raw and unresolved.   Unfortunately the plotting becomes slightly unfeasible.

Since finishing the novel, I’ve heard that there’s an intertextual layer that  eluded me on the first reading.  The final section , entitled The Speed Necessary to Replace Loss,  a nod at  Ondaatje’s The English Patient;  the character, Kim Burton, whose father grieves for his lost Indian childhood,  is so named as a tribute to Kipling, and there are apparently Forstian elements in play.  

Such intertextuality signalling Shamsie’s clear ambitions for the novel.  Well-placed ambitions, I’d agree.  Like the shadows burnt on Hiroko’s back, this novel will not be erased.  Expect to be talking about it for years to come.

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