Tuesday 24 March 2015

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

This is a novel that sweeps you through epoch changing events of history. We experience this through the eyes of those caught up in war and rebellion, but also through the painstaking work and passion of archaeology. And who could be more passionate about the subject than Vivian Rose Spencer who manages to talk her father into letting her accompany his great friend, archaeologist Tahsin Bey, on a dig in Labraunda, Turkey.
    There are many references to the ancients: Pliny and Herodotus, Darius and Scylax, with Tahsin Bey as Vivian's teacher, and the two develop a bond that promises more than friendship. But it is the summer of 1914, with a war beginning that will turn friends into enemies; a time when love can turn so easily into betrayal.
    Vivian returns suddenly to England and becomes a VAD nurse, like her suffragette friend, and dreams of Tahsin Bey and of his great wish to visit the ancient site of Caspatyrus, now Peshawar. It is here he believes he will find the embellished coronet given to Scylax in return for his mission to discover where the Indus ran into the sea. She's a determined young woman, but becoming unhinged by her nursing experiences, she decides her calling is the dig in Peshawar not a war hospital.
    And Peshawar just happens to be where our second narrator comes from. Qayyum Gul was proud to fight for the British but losing an eye at Ypres has become disillusioned and haunted by his wartime experiences. He meets Viv on his train home, sharing cigarettes. Such interaction would be impossible with women from his own culture, but this time it seems quite natural and a moment of understanding passes between them.
    At the train station Qayyum's young brother, Najeeb, has arrived to meet him, but the boy is disconcerted by his brother's grim appearance and ends up helping Viv find her hotel instead. Viv sparks an interest in Najeeb to discover more about the past and his people's ancient history. But more than a decade later, Najeeb's skills as an archaeologist will take a back seat to defining moments in modern history and the three characters will meet again in very different and disturbing circumstances.
    A God in Every Stone is a very absorbing read that is also full of wisdom, creating a picture of a time when British colonisation is teetering, and social change is rushing forward in the wake of a world war that has turned everything on its head. Women will gain the vote in England, but in the north of India they are often not educated and must wear a burqua.
    Viv and Qayyum are each given a moral dilemma, and unintended consequences recur through the book as its characters must grapple with things bigger than themselves. The effects of terrible events like the massacre of Armenians, the casualties in the trenches and the violent quashing of peaceful resistance in India by the ruling British are reflected in the loss experienced by the main characters. Shamsie creates tremendous empathy in the reader for these characters so that you drift from moments to terrible foreboding to shock and even outrage.
    But there is also much to enjoy in the richness of her settings - from Labrounda to Peshawar, the heat and the intensity of momentary sensations: the touch of a hand on a wrist, the soothing quality of water, the colours and tastes. It all adds up to masterful storytelling that makes history come alive and also makes you want to find out more about it.

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