Friday, 3 October 2014

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

Reviewer: Rebecca Johnson Bista

What we thought: A novel that cleverly intertwines the history of Indians in combat in the First World War and subsequent issues of loyalty to the Empire, with the ancient Greek legend of Scylax, explorer of India, and an Edwardian British woman’s passion for archaeology and independence.

As you would expect of Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone unearths a unique perspective on WWI. Her English heroine, Vivian Rose Spencer, is a non-suffragette in the mould of Gertrude Bell (a spy and colleague of T E Lawrence) who defies convention to travel to the Ottoman Empire and to Peshawar during the war. This is a woman who studies ancient Greek, suffers traumatic shock from her experience of VAD nursing in London, smokes Turkish cigarettes and speaks Pashto. She is on the trail of a legendary artefact sought by the man she loves, but from whom she has been separated by the war.

On the way to Peshawar, she meets a discharged Pathan soldier who served at Ypres and lost an eye. Much of the rest of the novel is the story of this man, Qayyum, and his brother Najeeb. I was gripped by this part of the novel, with its atmospheric descriptions of the old quarters of Peshawar and its museum rich with Buddhist art. I also found compelling Qayyum’s moral and emotional dilemma of divided loyalties between the British Army, particularly his own regiment the 40th Pathans, and the growing anti-British independence movement back home in what would eventually become Pakistan. At times, for a non-Pakistani audience, the different factions are confusing, but the concerns, cruelties and resentments and the shift in sympathies – often creating a division between the two brothers – are very clearly portrayed. None of these issues is resolved within the novel except that the two brothers grow closer again through their experience of a massacre of non-violent protesters in Peshawar by the British authorities. The subsequent historical events leading to Partition are well known.

The novel is clearly driven by its anti-colonial sympathies, and the English character, Vivian, is left without resolution to her own stories at the end – the artefact she seeks, though Najeeb finds it, is lost again, kept out of even sympathetic British hands. Much is left ambiguous, with the reader invited to draw their own conclusions about the ultimate fate of the relationship between Vivian, Najeeb and Qayyum. For all this, A God in Every Stone is a vivid and compelling read, shaping individual tragedy, experience and relationships as part of a much larger pattern of historical forces and political concerns. In doing so it makes that history profoundly moving and intimately human.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Nadeem Aslam, Salman Rushdie, Pashtunwali, war stories, Buddhist sculpture, ancient Greek legend.

Avoid if you don’t like: WWI, archaeology, stories of colonial India.

Ideal accompaniments: A cup of finest Darjeeling and a stick of sugar cane.

Genre: Post-colonial fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction.

Available from Amazon

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