We all have our place in the chaos of history, says the jacket blurb. As in her previous novels, Kamila Shamsie links ordinary people to world changing events, yet this one goes farther. Her narrative touches two great empires - the Persian of 500BC and the British Empire of the 20th century. Loyalty and betrayal, love and loss, conflicting ideals . . . all crop up. In particular the Great War 1915 and the hectic 1930s in British India (now Pakistan). The main characters charmingly connect the heritage of two great races - Pathan and English. As I anticipate from this author, the writing is superb. Unfortunately, however, her plot gets lost towards the end and I just don't get it. New characters materialise and take over. I was not interested in these strangers. I wanted conclusion for the people who had enchanted me throughout. I mean, what the heck happened to the English heroine? I know she'll campaign in 1947 for Pakistan independence, but she's last seen disguised in a burka during the Peshawar Massacre of 1930. And the two male leads deserved better than a casual dumping. All praise to deep research, informative detail, ambitious vision and skilled writing, but for me a story requires a satisfying ending and I failed to find one.
I enjoy a novel with a historical background that teaches me something. In theory this ticked all the boxes for me - archaeology, WW1 and an insight into the independence movement in Peshawar, British India (now Pakistan) and the Qissa Khwani bazaar massacre.
It's a good story, with some great writing, but the book as a whole is a bit disjointed. It jumps forward in time without really fleshing out the characters' development. It's also a bit clichéd in places - Viv is a typical posh naive meddling Brit, Najeeb, the boy Viv befriends and teaches at the beginning predictably follows her into an academic world of history and archaeology and his brother Qayyam fights for the British in WW1 and returns home wounded where he undergoes an equally predictable political awakening.
Overall it's a good read, but not a great one. I wanted to love it more than I did - perhaps my expectations were too high.
I first discovered Kamila Shamsie's wonderful storytelling - as I'm sure did many others - through her magnificent book Burnt Shadows, nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction and quite inexplicably overlooked for that year's Booker. That book tackled an enormous canvas - the bombing of Nagasaki, the partition of India, the Afghan conflict, 9/11 - and held it all together through the character of Hiroko, with achingly beautiful writing and a quite wonderful story. I'm delighted to say that I think she's done it again.
We first meet Vivian at an archaeological dig in Labraunda, once within the Persian Empire but nowadays in modern day Turkey, having her first taste of passion - her all-consuming interest in the ancient world is only matched by her growing love and admiration for the leader, Tahsin Bey. The outbreak of the First World War brings Vivian home, where she becomes a nurse looking after soldiers returned from the front. We later meet the injured Qayyum Gul, injured at Ypres, and learn a lot about the unjust way in which Indian soldiers were treated despite their commitment to the Empire.
Their stories come together when they meet briefly on a train to Peshawar, and some years later the focus moves to the political situation in Peshawar, through little known but very significant events. The author shows her skill, as in Burnt Shadows, in looking at the events through the eyes of her characters - Qayyum helping his father to write letters at his much-prized desk as others try to draw him into the politics, Vivian becoming teacher to young Najeeb while seeking permission to commence an archaeological dig inspired by her lover. The story then moves on to 1930 and the struggle for Indian independence, the two main characters still in central focus, and with a wholly satisfying conclusion.
As with Burnt Shadows, much of the historical context was largely unfamiliar to me - I'll readily admit that much of the ancient background went way over my head, but the situation within Peshawar will long stay with me. The writing is vivid - the reader walks with the characters through the walled city of Peshawar, and feel it with every sense. The themes are huge - an individual's place in history, morality, betrayal both personal and political - but it's entirely possible to enjoy this book as a wonderfully told story with complex individual stories at its heart. If this isn't your usual reading material, do give it a try - it was way outside my personal comfort zone at times too, but I loved it.
The first book I have read by Kamila Shamshie and it certainly won't be the last. I absolutely loved the depiction of white privilege in the first world war era of the British Raj. It was so startling to hear Vivian, the main protagonist, who is in so many ways endearing and empathetic expressing her innate racism and superiority so calmly and so matter of factly. the exact kind of person who would say "I'm not racist but..." before putting both feet into her mouth.
It's not the first book I have read about colonial India, (in Peshawar, in modern day Pakistan) but it added greatly to my understanding, especially the treatment of the Indian soldiers in Britain's imperial army on the Western Front in France.
A God in Every Stone begins in 1914 with Vivian Rose Spencer, a young Englishwoman, discovering the ancient history of Southern Turkey and falling in love with her mentor and family friend, on an archaeological dig. When war flares up Viv must return to England and work as a nurse but she still dreams pursuing her career as an archaeologist.
The novel then introduces us to a young Pathan soldier in the British Indian army, Qayyam Gul. Qayyam is wounded at Ypres and whilst recuperating in Brighton he begins to question his loyalty to the British cause.
Vivian and Qayyam's stories intersect on a train to Peshawar and the rest of the novel remains set in Peshawar in increasingly troubled times. Vivian becomes a teacher to a young boy called Najeeb and Qayyam becomes involved in the Indian independence movement. All three of these characters paths will cross when the fight for independence spills into the streets on Peshawar.
A God in Every Stone is a well written novel although I found the second part of the novel set in Peshawar to be far more evocative than the earlier section of the book. Vivian is not the most interesting character and I found Qayyam and Najeeb more sympathetic and more complicated characters. I will definitely read more of Kamila Shamsie's novels.
I had not read any of this author's work before. I did think initially that I wasn't going to get into this book; Viv and the way the story seemed to be heading didn't appeal. However, once the action moved to WW1 and the Indian soldiers my interest perked up, and when the story reached Peshawar I was pulled into the beautifully realised background, if not able to muster up very much interest in the characters. Peshawar came alive for me and for a while it was one of those stories that made me really feel I was there. I also enjoyed the historical background to a period I knew very little about. The archeological story, of the hunt for an ancient circlet, I found much less interesting, and most of the characters, except for Viv when first in India and one of the Pathans as a boy, did not grip me at all. I think the book deserves four stars for its setting and its history, but I found the ending rather muddled and the characters did not stay with me.
This is a BIG and complex novel – moving from an archaeological dig in Turkey in early 1914, across the first year of the 1st World War, and through into Peshawar in both 1915 and again in 1930. It is also pretty challenging on one’s knowledge of ancient Persian mythology…(did you know that the Caspatyrus of mythology is modern day Peshawar? Or that Syclax betrayed Darius, the Emperor of Persia, and sided with the Carians against the Persians?). In Shamsie’s version of the story, Syclax has a valuable circlet given to him by Darius and the circlet then subsequently disappears. The search for its rediscovery is central to the storyline of A God in Every Stone.
The constant throughout the story is Vivien Spencer. Before the outbreak of the War, the young Viv went on an archaeological dig in Labraunda, Turkey. She was an ‘intern’ working with Turkish archaeologist, Tahsin Bey, a quite old (in both senses…) friend of her father’s. Bey’s ‘Holy Grail’ was to rediscover the circlet that Darius had given to Syclax. She fell in love with Bey (and he with her), but they were separated when war broke out. Viv worked for a short while in London as a nurse looking after the war wounded until she received a ‘coded’ Christmas card from Bey suggesting that she visit Peshawar where he hoped to join her. She (with difficulty) persuaded her parents to let her go and set off into the unknown.
The second theme of the story develops in parallel. Qayyum, a Pashtun soldier, is wounded fighting with the 40th Pathans at Ypres. He loses an eye, is invalided out of the army, and sent back to his native Peshawar. On the last part of his journey home he shares a railway compartment with Viv. Viv, when she arrives at the station in Peshawar, is befriended by a local boy called Najeeb. She teaches him English, the classics, and fosters his love of archaeology. Only much later does she discover that Najeeb in in fact Qayyum’s younger brother. His lessons with Viv are when he is meant to be at the Mosque being instructed in the Qur’an – a fact which his mother finds out and bans the lessons from continuing.
Viv deduces from archaeological evidence (and shares with Najeeb) that Darius’ circlet is possibly buried alongside a white stone Buddha at a site in Peshawar, and that this is the message that Bey was trying to communicate to her. But they cannot get permission to dig and she returns to England. Fast forward 15 years to 1930.
Najeeb is now working at the Archaeological Museum in Peshawar, and has got permission to dig at the site. He writes to Viv suggesting he join her and asking for funds to finance the adventure. She travels out – and finds a very different Peshawar. Ghaffar Khan, a leader of the non violent protest movement against British Rule in India is in the ascendancy, and his Khudai Khidmatgar has many followers. Tensions run high… and eventually burst over on 23rd April 1930 when the infamous (and actual) massacre in the Street of Storytellers takes place. A British army officer panics, orders his men to open fire, and carnage reigns. ‘Many’ (estimates range from the official number of 30 to up to 500) were killed. This single act changed the face of the Indian fight for independence.
Viv is caught up in the aftermath as she searches for Najeeb, and tries to piece together what happened to him, She re-encounters Qayyum (15 years on) who is on the same mission. Together they find the truth.
As I started by saying, A God In Every Stone is a BIG book. It brilliantly portrays the culture and way of life of Peshawar (none perhaps more so that in explaining the different reaction to Viv when she is ‘disguised’ in a burqua as she searches for Najeeb after the massacre). It also has a real sense of history and, in particular, the history of empire – or, rather, 3 empires. The decline of the all powerful Persian Empire of ancient times, the decline of the Ottoman Empire as the effects of the 1st World War impacted – and the beginning of the decline of the British Empire (Peshawar is, in fact, in modern day Pakistan after independence and the break up of British India…).
It is a book that I really enjoyed and would wholeheartedly recommend. I possibly wish, though, that I had first taken a refresher course in Persian mythology…!