Archive for February, 2010

Mixed reviews for Shamsie’s epic novel

It was like Christmas all over again when the Book group met at Doolally’s – lovely Kim had be-ribboned piles of the forthcoming book choices together in a fantastic 3-for-2 deal. I very nearly bought the package just for the ribbons! Anyone who didn’t make it to the February meeting should pop into the shop and get this deal while it’s still available.
Down to business: this month we’ve read Kamila Shamsie’s much-acclaimed Burnt Shadows. I picked this one out because it featured in so many “Books of the Year” lists in the papers and, of course, it came with the recommendation of an Orange Prize shortlisting.
Unusually for the Berwick group, there was quite a consensus of opinion among those who’d got to the end of the book – the consensus being that Shamsie has perhaps taken on too much. The novel starts off on the day of the bombing of Nagasaki and follows the (beautifully-drawn) character of Hiroko, who loses her German fiancee in the atrocity. We all felt the writing in this first section was beautiful – lyrical and understated. We then follow Hiroko as she travels to India to seek out her fiancee’s relatives and falls in love with their employee, Sajjad. Here, the writing became somewhat reminscent of EM Forster and others of the genre- for example, a misunderstanding leading to a rape allegation, and the rather stereotypical English man who expresses himself through cricketing terms. We pick up Hiroko and Sajjad’s story in the 1980s in Pakistan, where their disaffected teenage son Raza becomes involved in a chain of events that cause tragedy for the family and haunts the characters through to post-9-11 New York. It was the final section that most of us found dissatisfying – too much action was packed into it, not all of it plausible, and some of the later key characters failed to engage us the way Hiroko, Ilse and others had done.
One reader objected to the way Shamsie’s political points – which I understood to be that the colonial actions of Britain and the US are largely responsible for the troubles of the world today – were rather too heavily made.
Where Shamsie succeeds is in her often beautiful and original imagery, her vivid scene-setting (such as in the Burton’s Indian garden, Karachi harbour and northern Pakistan where the mujahideen camp is sited) and her ability to bring disparate worlds together.
Yet again (how often has this happened now?), we found ourselves thinking that the book could have been a better one if it had ended before the third and final section. A plea for better editors perhaps? (And proof readers! We notice a creeping increase in the number of typos in new novels).
What else have we all been reading? Quite a few of us have read the Booker winner, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (a Christmas present for many a book lover, I suspect!). One reader couldn’t get past the first few pages but the rest of us loved it. Janet’s been reading Agatha Christie’s Secret Diaries, which sound fascinating.
Back into history for next month’s choice – but a much more recent period. We’re reading Gordon Burn’s Born Yesterday – The News as a Novel, which follows the real news events of summer 2008.
Hope to see everyone there along with lighter evenings and a sniff of spring in the air!
Next meeting: Tuesday March 2nd, 6.30pm at Doolally’s in Marygate, Berwick ( home to possibly┬áthe world’s largest scones). Discussing Born Yesterday – The News As a Novel by Gordon Burn.


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

February 2010
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