Jul/Aug 2014  •   Reviews & Interviews

A God in Every Stone

Review by Ann Skea

A God in Every Stone.
Kamila Shamsie.
Bloomsbury. 2014. 312 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 4721 3.

Kamila Shamsie begins and ends her novel with Scylax, a Greek explorer who in 515 BCE was sent by the Persian King, Darius, to explore the Indus River. And in Shamsie's sensitive and eloquent telling, it is the lost Fig Circlet of Scylax, a delicate silver headband decorated with fig leaves and fruit, which links the various threads of her story together. History and myth run throughout this book, connecting different centuries, cultures, religions and wars, and the people whose lives are touched by this silver circlet.

A God in Every Stone tells many stories, but it begins when Vivian Rose Spencer, a young Edwardian Englishwoman with a romantic passion for Greek history and archaeology, falls in love with Labraunda in Turkey, the place of Scylax's victory over the Carians; and falls in love, too, with Tahsin Bey, a charismatic Turkish archaeologist who is her father's good friend. Too soon, the onset of war in Europe separates them. But the war also brings a young Pashtun man, Qayyum Gul, to England, and it is his life that forms the second main theme of the book, touching Viv's occasionally, but mostly remaining separate.

In wartime London, Viv and her sister Mary begin working in a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers. Eventually, their father arranges for them to be moved to Class A hospitals, where Viv finds herself nursing the badly wounded and dying. Qayyum, meanwhile, has been wounded at Ypres while serving with the British Indian Army. He finds himself bizarrely surrounded by images from djinn stories painted on the walls and ceilings of an Indian military ward in the Brighton Pavilion. For both, their wartime experiences are harrowing.

Qayyum, having lost an eye, is repatriated to his home in Peshawar. Viv, traumatized by the horrific injuries and continual deaths of the young men she has been nursing, eventually manages to arrange to travel far away from the war, to Peshawar. There she hopes to search for Scylax's Fig Circlet, which Tahsin Bey has hinted may be buried in the nearby ruins at Shahji-ki-Dheri. Qayyum returns to his family and tries to adjust to his life there, and Viv becomes a resident of the British quarter and a rather reluctant part of the colonial social scene. She does, however, meet and befriend a young Pashtun boy, Najeeb, teaching him English and fostering his interest in the historical relics in the Peshawar Museum.

Viv, who is a thoroughly modern young woman, continues to teach Najeeb despite the disapproval of the British community, but it is Najeeb's own family, when they learn that he is taking lessons alone with a young English woman, who are shocked by the situation and forbid him to continue with them. Deprived of her teaching, and as unrest grows and the possibility of excavation at Shahji-ki-Dheri becomes more remote, Viv returns to London.

The second half of the book concerns events that take place some 15 years later. Najeeb has continued his studies, gained a history degree, and been appointed Indian Assistant at Peshawar Museum. Viv has pursued an archeological career and has become a Senior Lecturer at University College London. Qayyum, still struggling with his old loyalties to the British Army, sees the inequalities around him and is exposed to anti-British feelings. Eventually, he is guided towards the Pashtun non-violent resistance movement and its leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, an associate of Ghandi, who has set up schools fostering Indian unity based on truth and love. Both Qayyum and Najeeb, who is his younger brother, live through the turmoil in India, and in particular, the bloody confrontation between Ghaffar Khan's non-violent activists and British troops in Peshawar's Street of Storytellers in 1930.

Shortly before this confrontation, Viv receives a totally unexpected letter from Najeeb, who writes to tell her of his achievements since she left Peshawar, and in particular, of archaeological discoveries he has made and the possibility that he has found the location of the lost Fig Circlet of Scylax. Viv returns to Peshawar as it is still in turmoil immediately after the violence, and the eventual outcome brings the story full circle.

Trying to summarize such a rich and complex tale does nothing to suggest the delightful way that Shamsie, with love and humor, knowledge and insight, draws her readers into the lives and emotions of her characters. Suffice it to say that she could certainly set up stall successfully in any Street of Storytellers.


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