Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About this Guide
The following author biography and list of questions about
Burnt Shadows are intended as resources to
aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the
author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place
for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might
approach Burnt Shadows.
About this Book
Burnt Shadows begins begins in Nagasaki at the end of World War II,
and ends shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In between,
the characters are tossed upon the swells of a turbulent half-century, their
lives touched by the partition of India, the nuclear arms race, the rise of
Islamic fundamentalism in South Asia, and the suppression of liberties in
America after 9/11. But the novel does not merely present these events as
a backdrop, rather it shows that human beings must reckon with them in highly
personal ways; that an historic gesture may move a country's border (as with
partition) or devastate a population (as with the atomic bomb), but, in the end,
history is also a story about individual people and relationships.
A novel of uncommon ambition and scope, Burnt Shadows offers much to discuss.
Early in the novel, Hiroko observes that during the World
War II everything has been "distilled or distorted into its most functional
form," including a vegetable patch where once Azaleas grew, and she asks,
"What prompted this falling-off of love?" Can you find other places in the
novel where this idea is expressed? Is there a similarity between the garden
and a suicide bomber?
How does Hiroko resist being simply Hibakusha, a victim of
the bomb, and in what ways is she powerless to change this perception of
her? Consider also how it affects her son, Raza. Is it impossible to escape
Discuss the different reasons that Konrad, Elizabeth, Sajjad
and Harry leave their home in India, and why Hiroko leaves Japan, and then
Pakistan. What does it mean to have a home, and to be displaced? How is it
different when you don't have a choice to stay? Ultimately, do the
characters ever have a country to call their own?
Hiroko is immovable in her opinion about the atomic bomb.
What does it mean to have a direct and highly personal connection to an
earth-changing event like the bombing of Nakasaki, or 9/11? Is it possible
for anyone so directly affected by the violence of these events to regard
them with historic perspective? How are Kim and Hiroko different from one
another in this regard? Consider their conversation about Nagasaki on pgs
294 to 295.
The characters in Burnt Shadows sometimes find that
their ideological beliefs can be vanquished by basic human feelings of love
and hate. And sometimes the reverse happens as well. Why are individuals so
often in conflict with their ideals, and how does the novel illustrate this
What does Sajjad mean when he says on pg 52 that he wants a
"modern wife"? How do the women in Burnt Shadows each express their
independence? And in what ways are they still captive to tradition?
Why does Elizabeth at first resist Sajjad and Hiroko's
affection for one another? Is she just trying to be practical? What is the
nature of her resentment and concern?
Hiroko, Sajjad, and Raza each have a love of languages. What
does it mean to learn another language, and why are languages (and their
translation back and forth) important to these characters?
Discuss the reasons that Abdullah joins a mujahideen
training camp. Why is it tempting to Raza as well? What social pressures and
conditions do you think could inspire you to take up arms in a similar
fashion, or to become radicalized?
Shortly after Sajjad tells Hiroko that "everything about you
is beautiful," Elizabeth Burton, reflecting upon the Himalayas, thinks "what
a pity beauty could be so meaningless." What does this novel, which begins
with the scarring of a woman's back, have to say about beauty and truth?
Who, if anyone, is to blame for the death of Sajjad?
Is it irresponsible for Harry to send Raza to Afghanistan,
given that he had promised Hiroko to keep him safe? Discuss his reasons for
sending him, and Raza's reasons for going.
Steve is highly suspicious of Raza's past, in particular his
early brush with the mujahideen. While Raza is, in truth, largely motivated
by personal loyalties, is Steve nonetheless right to be suspicious of him?
Is Steve's paranoia a widespread phenomenon in the United States? Globally?
The forces of oppression and liberation course through this
novel from the Raj, to the partition of India, to fundamentalist Islam's
control of women in Pakistan, to the Patriot Act. Is Burnt Shadows asking
what it means to liberate one's self, to be free both personally and
politically? Is there a difference? Consider, as well, Elizabeth's flight
from her husband, and her life in New York.
Discuss Kim Burton's actions at the Canadian border. Would
you have done the same thing? How does this act illustrate the larger themes
of the novel?
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Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Picador.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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