Shamsie accomplishes many things in this profound and troubling novel that ranges from the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 to post-9/11 New York. It all begins with language, with the desire of one person to learn the language of another. As this thirst for the connections of language and culture endures over the years, two families are inextricably bound together.
When Hiroko Tanaka survives the bomb with the shapes of three birds indelibly etched on her back, Konrad Weiss, the man she loves, is annihilated. Only his shadow is left upon a rock, people all but disappearing in the searing heat of the blast.
Fleeing her destroyed homeland, Hiroko reaches out to Konrad’s sister, Ilse, the beginning of an entanglement that will touch the following generations: Hiroko; Konrad’s sister, Elizabeth (Ilse) Burton; her husband, James, an Englishman; and a young man who hopes to become a lawyer with James’s assistance, Sajjad Ashaf.
In 1947, two years after Nagasaki, India is on the cusp of the Partition and the violence that will follow the division of two cultures, India and Pakistan, two religions, Hindu and Islam. Against a background of Imperialist Occupation, the Burtons’ innate social prejudices are a stark contrast to the open-mindedness of Hiroko and Sajjad.
Certain assumptions are questioned, the arrogance of place and birth, the seduction of all things American and the division of India and Pakistan. In a great clash of cultures, Shamsie’s individual characters live out their fates, their choices and aspirations in a quickly-changing world.
From one generation to another, fate intervenes - Hiroko’s son and Elizabeth Burton’s son and granddaughter. Finally, in America’s great melting pot, these same characters face one another over an unbridgeable gulf. The age of terrorism, of suspicion and fear, has arrived.
This author has created an unassailable protagonist. Having survived one of the most shocking decisions of mankind, Hiroko is free to judge the world in which she lives, to question the power, the hubris, the nationalistic fervor of America, India, Pakistan and England. Having seen the worst that man can do, Hiroko holds a particular authority and the unanswered question: why the need to drop a second bomb?
With characters as realistic as our own families, our neighbors, this story is made more poignant by the intricacy of emotional connections, the love of parent for child, of citizen for country. The answers are never sufficient to merit the damage. For all Hiroko understands of her own life, her family and the Burtons’, she has been unable to change anything.