Reviewed by Rowland Jones
There was an immediate appeal in reading the dust jacket. The novel was bound for The Street of Storytellers in Peshawar. For a reader it sounded like a place to visit. Away I went, the story moving at a flowing pace, the style rich in detail and complexity rising to the surface, often briefly and in seemingly throwaway phrases. A novel of Empire, stretched by archaeology encompassing two thousand years of wars, conquest, subjection, culture, religion and with patriarchy overarching all; this could have been a doorstop and a half of a tome. Instead Shamsie’s skilful use of telling detail and incident, within her interlacing of themes and material, covers the ground in a well-paced three hundred pages.
The two central characters in Kamila Shamsie’s A God In Every Stone, Vivian Rose Spencer (her middle name redolent of the English rose), and Quyyum Gul, are first, although briefly, brought together in an otherwise empty train compartment as they approach Peshawar in July 1915. The section opens by describing Viv sketching the river outside the window. Yet this moment is at the end of their first encounter, from which the narrative returns us to its beginning, giving the details in retrospect. This device of the narrative pausing and moving backwards to be rerun, sometimes from another perspective or a different character’s revelation of events, filling in gaps, is structurally predominant in the novel and becomes increasingly important in driving our curiosity and impelling the narrative as it pulses to its tumultuous conclusion.
Viv has left nursing the war-wounded and is on an archaeological quest. Quyyum is heading home having lost an eye at Ypres, invaliding him out of the fighting in Europe. Viv is sketching the
two rivers (the Indus and the Kabul/Cophen) running parallel to each other in one body of water – the blue of melted snow running down from the Himalayas, the brown of silt and turbulence racing across from Kabul. Progressing side by side until they passed the Campbellpur fort and merged.
A few lines later Viv wonders, “Did she really see a dolphin leap repeatedly in and out of the water along the border of the rivers, as though it were a needle stitching them together?” Typical of the novel, we can read in this brief description of the parallel rivers both difference and separation, the collision or intermingling of our characters’ narrative destinies much later in the story; or in the larger context the ruled and rulers in British India, the natives’ walled city and the Imperial compound of Peshawar itself. Indeed the city becomes almost a character in the story.
A story from Herodotus, evoking Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, prefaces the novel. It tells of Scylax, who served the Persian king, Darius, in sailing the entire River Indus from Caspatryrus to the sea and reporting his discoveries. Scylax’s reward is a beautiful circlet to wear. Later, Scylax’s people rebel and he sides with them against the king, Darius. Darius’ capital is believed to be, or near, Peshawar where the novel will take us. First, though, the story begins at the other end of Scylax’s journey, Caria, which is now Labraunda in Turkey. Tahsin Bey, a Turkish archaeologist, is seeking Scylax’s circlet and has invited his great friend’s daughter, whom he has known since her childhood, to join him and his team. Viv arrives full of excitement and energy to begin her first excavation.
During this excavation Viv forms a passion for Tahsin, which she senses as reciprocated despite their differences in age. We also learn that Viv has been educated in history at university and is keen on archaeology, despite her mother’s disapproval. She is not allowed on early all female archaeological digs as these are viewed as inferior to the ‘real’ ones led by men, until the chance to join Tahsin’s project arises. Despite the privileges Viv has received, she has no sympathy for the Suffragettes, whom her friend Mary supports. It seems ironic, given her father’s support of her entry into a mainly male world, but the real reason for his actions and his wife’s objections only becomes clear once the outbreak of war brings Viv back to England to nurse the wounded and propels her, after a mysterious letter from Tahsin, on her journey to Peshawar.
Quyyum Gul is a Lance Naik (lance corporal), recently promoted, in the 40th Pathans regiment, freshly arrived in France, welcomed as heroes, when we first meet him and his close friend sepoy Kalam Khan. Quyyum is an Empire man, admiring of the British and grateful to serve in their army, for ‘The brilliance of the English was to understand all the races of the world’. Soon plunged into the battle of Ypres, Quyyum is severely wounded and then bravely rescued by Kalam. In England to receive medical attention he marvels that he is treated in the Brighton Pavillion.
The thought of the King-Emperor made Quyyum rest a hand against his chest and bow his head. He had given his own palace to wounded Indian soldiers. What nawab or maharaja would do as much?
Soon however the real nature of the British-Indian relationship will become clear to Quyyum and by the time he is on the train back to Peshawar he has a different view of things, although he remains grateful to the kindly nurses and the brave officers, who as individuals have treated him so well
The interconnected story of Viv and Quyyum continues through the next fifteen years, years when Viv teaches a local boy in Peshawar who will come to help her in her continued task of seeking Scylax’s circlet and when she will come to know more of the city’s people, English and local, and their everyday lives. Meanwhile Quyyum will gradually move closer to the independence movement of the time. Both will experience the full weight of the Imperial machine, which has shaped their lives, and the lives of millions more, and it is through these lives of individuals that Kamila Shamsie develops the reader’s understanding of huge forces which can divert, damage and ultimately destroy the ordinary person’s world and how they can respond, find themselves, understand and challenge the world which they also play a part in forming. In the end it is these people of many races, nationalities, religions, political beliefs and cultures whose experiences are the heart of this insightful and generous novel.
Kamila Shamsie is a rising star and this is her sixth novel, but the only one I have read. Her previous novel Burnt Shadows was highly praised and shortlisted for (what was then) the Orange Prize for Fiction. She was one of the 2013 Granta Best of Young Novelists. I intend to read more of her work.
Rowland Jones’ favourite indie bookshop is Minster Books in York, but he doesn’t have a blog, despite Victoria’s nagging that he should get one.
Kamila Shamsie, A God In Every Stone (Bloomsbury, London 2014) 978-1-4088-4720-6,320pp., hardback.