Shamsie was born and raised in Pakistan, and now lives in London. Her novels are mostly set in Pakistan. They have a wide range of well-drawn characters.
Pakistan is a pivotal country. Created in 1947 to be an Islamic nation by leaders who rejected Gandhi's vision of a united, diverse India, it was born in a bloody war between former neighbors. The country sits in crucial area – next to Afghanistan – and is the way station for many of its refugees. Pakistan has lived with military dictatorships and unstable elected regimes, fluctuating between the two since it was created. Many women are educated, but women have far fewer legal right than men. And Pakistan developed nuclear weapons because India did. No one can afford to be ignorant about Pakistan.
Years ago I discovered Shamsie's Broken Verses (Bloomsbury, 2005). It is still one of my favorite contemporary novels. Few writers can convincingly portray a poet who really sounds like a poet. In a novel of love and Pakistani progressive politics, Shamsie accomplishes that feat. Her characters face murder, exile, and abandonment. The book asks the question: What is betrayal? Perhaps all of her novels ask that question.
Recently I read Burnt Shadows (Picador, 2009) and A God in Every Stone (Atavist Books, 2014). Both novels are excellent. I'll try to give an idea of them without spoilers.
Burnt Shadows begins with the atomic bomb dropping on Nagasaki. (Why don't more Americans write about Hiroshima and Nagasaki? But the term “war crimes” is seldom used by victors. One of her characters says that when Eisenhower was president, he deplored the bombing. Few of us remember that.) One of the main characters is Hiroto, a Japanese woman whose body was marked forever by the blast. Her German fiance, Konrad, a man escaping the war in Europe who found himself in another country at war, is killed in Nagasaki. Disintegrated. Nothing left of him.
For a while, Hiroto works as a translator for the Americans occupying Japan. But when she hears them justify the atomic bomb attacks as “saving American lives” she can't bear to work with them any longer.
Konrad had a sister in India. Tired of being stigmatized as bomb survivor in her birth country, Hiroto goes to India and hopes to find a home. Konrad's sister, Elizabeth, is married to a British official, James. Sajjad, a Pakistani Muslim who had been Konrad's friend, works for James, who dangles the possibility of letting Sajjad into his law practice. Shamsie's description of colonial English life seems on target: balanced, but acute.
India was on the verge of partition, when Pakistan split off. Divisions between Hindus and Muslims sharpened and much blood was shed. Even Muslims who had no intention of leaving Delhi found themselves unwelcome there.
Shamsie tells how the characters rebuild their lives after partition. And then she tells of the descendants of the English and Pakistani families, and how they try to make sense of the world. Hiroto's outsider perspective is crucial.
The U.S. role in Afghanistan plays a large part in the story. Shamsie leaves the reader with a devastating picture of Americans.
A God in Every Stone provides an equally devastating picture of the English. The story begins on the eve of World War I. Major characters are a young Englishwoman who wants to be an archaeologist, a Turkish archaeologist, an Indian Muslim who fights with the English forces in Europe, and his younger brother. All are moving characters with lives full of pain. The book looks back to the ancient history of what is now Pakistan, especially Peshawar, and at what Peshawar has become: a refuge for Afghans fleeing their country and a point from which they launch attacks into it. She rejects stereotypes of Pashtuns, both Pakistanis and Afghans.
One character asks another, “And what do I need to know?” The other replies, “How to remove your blindfold and see your place in the world.” Shamsie demands that we all remove our blindfolds.
Shamsie is honest, but not brutal. She cares about all her characters. Reading her books has expanded my horizons, and I think they would expand anyone's. If I could nominate anyone for the Nobel Prize in Literature, I would nominate her.
I wrote most of this before Shamsie's provocative article that said publishers should focus on women writers in 2018 appeared in the Guardian (“Let's Have a Year of Publishing Only Women: A Provocation” 5 June 2015). I am delighted that she has issued this challenge to confront biases against women writers.
Addendum: For anyone wanting a readable nonfiction account of women's situation in Pakistan, I recommend Rafia Zakaria's The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press, 2015). Zakaria looks at political developments, particularly in Karachi, including discrimination against Muslims who came from India. She also tells the moving story of her aunt, whose heart was broken when her husband took a second wife. It was uncommon for men to marry more than one woman in Pakistan's early days, but it became common as Islamization took more and more rights away from women.