Book review - A God in Every Stone

It is a rare writer who can transport her readers in just a few pages to another place and time. Kamila Shamsie’s writing is so evocative that she does just that. In this work she contrasts three different empires: the ancient Persians between 515 and 485 BCE, the dissolution of the Ottoman state, and the decline of British colonial rule in India. Spanning two continents and two defining events in the early part of the 20th century, the novel brilliantly illustrates how war tests loyalties and destroys empires.

This absorbing, multi-layered novel begins in July 1914. A young Englishwoman, Vivian Spencer, joins the Turkish archaeologist Tahsin Bey at a dig in Labraunda in Turkey. Tahsin, a friend of her father’s, has known Vivian since she was a child when he used to regale her with stories of Scylax and his betrayal of Darius, the Emperor of Persia. Scylax was instructed to trace the course of the Indus River and his journey started in Caspatyrus, now Peshawar. In Shamsie’s version, Darius gave his subject a silver circlet as a token of his esteem. When Scylax’s people, the Carians, rebelled against the Persians 20 years later, Scylax sided with his countrymen. The circlet disappeared and its rediscovery has become Tahsin’s Holy Grail. Vivian shares his passion for artefacts and their friendship swiftly turns to a love that is abruptly curtailed by the First World War.

After returning to London, Vivian serves as a VAD while Tahsin continues his archaeological work. He sends her family a postcard in which he mentions that he longs to go to Peshawar to see “the sacred casket of Kanishka”. Believing that Tahsin is encouraging her to escape the war in this “refuge amidst antiquity”, Vivian persuades her family to allow her to travel there. At the same time, Qayyum, a Pashtun soldier, is returning from Europe to his native city. He had served with the 40th Pathans on the Western Front and witnessed unspeakable horrors. Discharged after losing an eye at Ypres, Qayyum is heading home to an uncertain future.

Once in Peshawar, Viv befriends Najeeb, a young boy she meets at the station who, she later discovers, is Qayyum’s brother. He is hungry for knowledge and she nicknames him “the Herodotus of Peshawar” while teaching him about the history of the region, past excavations and travellers in antiquity. Before long, Najeeb is dreaming of a career as national assistant in the local museum. Vivian feels an affinity with ancient Peshawar, once a Buddhist kingdom: “Everywhere a traveller looked there was the Buddha, carved over and over into and around the countryside, in an age when the people of this region had the vision to find the god in every stone.” In Peshawar she also feels connected to Tahsin, to whom she writes every week, but she never hears back from him. It is only when Vivian returns to London that she hears of his fate.

Blending fact and fiction, Shamsie has Qayyum become involved with Ghaffar Khan, an independence activist known for his non-violent opposition to the British Raj. The second part of her carefully structured novel takes place 15 years later in Peshawar. Najeeb, now Indian assistant at the museum, persuades Vivian, a senior lecturer at the University of London, to return and fund the excavation of a site where he believes Scylax’s circlet is buried.

The region is in ferment and on the brink of change. Once again a reunion is thwarted because of conflict. This time it is the British government’s brutal suppression of unarmed demonstrators. The massacre in the Street of Storytellers on 23 April 1930 proved pivotal in the non-violent struggle to drive the British out of the Indian subcontinent.

In an end note, Shamsie observes that the British estimated the death toll to be 30 while the local Congress claimed it was as many as 125. The atrocities are vividly portrayed by Shamsie and a potent reminder of the bloodshed of more recent revolutions. When it comes to empires, Shamsie suggests, history often repeats itself.

There is an epic quality to A God in Every Stone. Shamsie begins with a love story, and encompasses a variety of subjects including war, colonialism, nationalism, gender and archaeology without ever being didactic. Vivian’s distaste for the burka, for example, is revealed through well-placed irony when she is forced to disguise her Britishness: “Viv was able to consider the burka as the invisibility cape she had longed for as a child. Beneath the white tent she moved in an entirely private sphere. Unknown, unseen.”

Shamsie is adept at excavating the past and braids the personal and political to great effect. All the while she builds tension and keeps us guessing about the fate of her characters. The end result is both complex and spell-binding.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday