Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 13, 2014

A God in Every Stone, by Kamila Shamsie

A God in Every StoneThe DSC South Asian literature prize shortlist was announced the other day, and there are some interesting titles to explore:

  • The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
  • Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer
  • A God in Every Stone, by Kamila Shamsie.

Stu from Winston’s Dad and I have formed a Shadow Jury and are aiming to read these five novels and choose the best of them before the official announcement in January.  (This will be more of a challenge than you might think because The Mirror of Beauty is 900+ pages.) I’d had reservations about Shamsie’s previous novel Burnt Shadows but A God in Every Stone is a much more coherent novel.  Set in Britain, Egypt, the Western Front in WW1 and Pakistan, it’s a story of divided loyalties and an exploration of patriotism.  While not a page-turner, it has a compelling plot and engaging characterisation and it covers a wide sweep of history from a post-colonial and feminist perspective.

Vivian Rose Spencer is the daughter of a man without sons who consoles himself with a compact early agreed on between them that she would be son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect.  So, unlike other young women of her class, she gets a classical education, studies history and Egyptology at UCL and ends up going on an archaeological dig with her father’s Turkish friend Tahsin Bey. In Egypt she becomes interested in the mythical circlet of Scylax, the Greek explorer despatched by the Persian King Darius to explore the Indus River in the 6th century BC.  Tahsin Bey becomes more than a mentor to her, but as the war clouds gather, they are separated, and the first test of her loyalty arises back home in London when British Intelligence take an interest in the friendship.

Loyalty is tested too on the Western Front as Qayyum Gul, a young Pashtun from what was then British India, confronts the reality of fighting on behalf of the colonisers.  Wounded, he returns to Peshawar and becomes involved in the independence movement.  Vivian comes to Peshawar too, seeking a salve for her broken heart and a refuge from the horrors she had seen as a VAD nursing the wounded.  She settles into colonial society in a detached sort of way and takes up the search for Scylax’s Circlet in the ruins at Shahji-ki-Dher.

Somewhat to the disapproval of the English community, Vivian also mentors Qayyum’s younger brother Najeeb, fostering his interest in archaeology and teaching him English when he’s supposed to be going to an Islamic school.  When his family finds out, the lessons come to an end.  He is on the cusp of adolescence, and according to their customs, he should not look upon the face of an uncovered woman.

At a loose end, Vivian returns to England and takes up academic life as an archaeologist at University College London, while in Peshawar Najeeb studies history and takes up a position at the Peshawar Museum where Vivian first introduced him to the ancient history of his people.  The story reaches a compelling climax when Vivian returns to Peshawar to resume the search for the circlet of Scylax just as the independence movement gathers momentum and the British respond with the massacre at the Storyteller’s Market.

We in Australia tend to have a rather one-dimensional perception of the Great War so I suspect that I am one of many who know little about the participation of the Indian Army on the Western Front.  Shamsie captures Qayyum’s ambivalence in his memories of battle and the Brighton Pavilion hospital where his injury was treated.

Everyone, even Najeeb, assumed Qayyum’s stand against Empire stemmed from Vipers [Ypres], the suffering he’d been led into for a fight that wasn’t his to fight.  But he had never felt closer to the English than on that day.  Even now, he knew hatred could never truly take root in his breast so long as he remembered Captain Dalmohy shot again and again, getting back onto his feet as though his body were an irrelevance; and Captain Christopher, dying with Urdu words of gratitude on his lips for the sepoys who had rushed to help him.  It was later, at Brighton, that the questions began.  (p.234)

He was not alone with those torn loyalties when members of the Indian army were ordered by the British to fire on their unarmed compatriots. I like books that explore moral complexities, but A God in Every Stone is also a good story, one that kept me interested right to the end.

Author: Kamila Shamsie
Title: A God in Every Stone
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
ISBN: 9781408847213
Source: Kingston Library

Availability:
Fishpond: A God in Every Stone


Responses

  1. This sounds like a good book, but not one I feel especially compelled to read for some reason. That’s nothing to do with the quality of your review, though! It’s just that the novel doesn’t particularly grab me.

    Just looking at the others on the list, I’ll be very interested to hear thoughts on The Lowland. I read it last year and the characters still flit in and out of my mind 18 months or so down the line.

    • I have that one on reserve at the library, Jacquie, and the others, alas, are on my kindle. I couldn’t get copies any other way at short notice, but I am dreading reading them on it, I prefer proper books!

  2. I have only read The Lowland, and thought it was an excellent read. As Jacqui said the characters are well drawn. Good luck with your challenge – too difficult for me.

    • I think I’ll start the long one first while the Kindle battery is still fully charged!

  3. I got invited to the shortlist announcement but couldn’t make it. Seems like a strong list. I have The Lowland in my pile and I’m keen to read Noontide Toll. Will be interested to see which book you and Stu choose as winner.

    • I’m loving The Mirror of Beauty but hating reading it a la Kindle. Impossible to rest it on a pillow properly when reading in bed …


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