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.
Having read a few of Kamila Shamsie’s novels before, I knew I could rely on her beautiful prose to draw me into the novel. Coupled with an intriguing synopsis, I was excited to begin reading. I find that Shamsie manages to explore some of the darkest moments of history with such a skill, it is deft yet deeply impactful at the same time. It is also a very ambitious novel and I feel like certain parts of the novel suffer due to the wide scope.
The story begins with Vivian in the summer of 1914, as she arrives in Labraunda, an ancient archaeological site. She is accompanying a family friend, the intelligent and handsome Tahsin Bey who hopes to recover an artefact, lost thousands of years before. Over the course of the summer Viv comes into her own and discovers the thrill of first love. At the same time in France, Qayyum a young soldier in the British Indian Army is finding it hard to deal with his divided loyalties and confusing attachment to the British crown. Just a year later, Qayyum and Vivian meet on a train to Peshawar, neither realising the ways their paths will intertwine for years to come…
The novel is focused on three main characters; Qayyum, Vivian and Najeeb. I enjoyed reading through each of their perspectives as their lives intersect and diverge in the strangest of ways. I thought the complex brotherly relationship between Qayyum and Najeeb was so well done as their political and social opinions diverge. My favourite perspective to read through was definitely Qayyum’s, it was so heartbreaking to read as he loses his eye and tries to deal with his trauma from fighting in the war and his conflicting emotions towards it all. It was also so powerful to read as he comes to terms with the reality of British and Indian relations at the time, and the painful realisation that the British saw Indian lives as disposable. I think this is an important point to make, highlighting the role of the Indian forces in the first and second World War and how many Indian men lost their lives fighting, who sadly still aren’t recognised today.
“If a man is to die defending a field, let the field be his field, the land his land, the people his people.”
Another central element of the novel is the focus on history and archaeology which I quite enjoyed. From the beginning sections of the novel with Vivian in Turkey, as she unearths the Temple of Zeus and sketches the columns and statues against the backdrop of the azure Aegean sea, it’s all so vivid and well realised. There’s a sort of haze or wonder over these sections of the novel not only because of the gorgeous imagery but the romanticism of history and thinking about the ancient world. It’s also focused on the very idea of empire and how they rise and fall over time, with the Ottoman empire being referenced specifically as it came to it’s demise in the 1920’s.
“That’s what I want for my life. I want to go to Peshawar… Because there’s more past than present there. Two and a half thousand years of history beneath its soil. How long a list of reasons do you need?”
Without spoiling anything about the ending, I’ll just say that it made sense for the story and the characters but it’s definitely bittersweet. Throughout the novel the characters deal with choices, large and small and it’s the consequences of these seemingly minute decisions which sets them each on an unseen course. This is so true to life and heartbreakingly so at times. I feel like a lot of Shamsie’s endings have this bittersweet quality and it’s never a straight forward happily ever after which given the subject matter and tone of many of her books is both sad and realistic.
“She took a deep breath, thought of a cliff above the sea, the taste of figs on her tongue, a man’s finger touching the jut of her wrist, the sea so blue she thought it might drive her mad though she understood nothing of madness then”
Overall, A God in Every Stone is a novel with some truly stunning prose and well written characters. Although it does suffer at certain points from it’s lengthy meditations and scope which stopped me from enjoying it to the fullest level. I would still recommend this novel to readers who enjoy lush and evocative prose with a compelling historical narrative which may also be eye opening at times.
Until next time,