Review – A God In Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

By | June 19, 2014

July 1914. Young Englishwoman Vivian Rose Spencer is running up a mountainside in an ancient land, surrounded by figs and cypresses. Soon she will discover the Temple of Zeus, the call of adventure, and the ecstasy of love. Thousands of miles away a twenty-year old Pathan, Qayyum Gul, is learning about brotherhood and loyalty in the British Indian army.

July, 1915. Qayyum Gul is returning home after losing an eye at Ypres, his allegiances in tatters. Viv is following the mysterious trail of her beloved. They meet on a train to Peshawar, unaware that a connection is about to be forged between their lives – one that will reveal itself fifteen years later, on the Street of Storytellers, when a brutal fight for freedom, an ancient artefact and a mysterious green-eyed woman will bring them together again.

A powerful story of friendship, injustice, love and betrayal, A God in Every Stone carries you across the globe, into the heart of empires fallen and conquered, reminding us that we all have our place in the chaos of history and that so much of what is lost will not be forgotten.

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.

A God In Every Stone was published by Bloomsbury Publishing on 10th April: my thanks to Amazon Vine for my hardback review copy.

Kamila Shamsie is the author of five novels, including Burnt Shadows which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and has been translated into over 20 languages. She has also written a work of non-fiction, Offence: The Muslim Case. A trustee of Free Word and English Pen, she grew up in Karachi and now lives in London