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A God In Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie, book review: War novel concerns itself with stories left out of official accounts

 

Pink may be the colour of an Empire's territories shown on a map of the world, while for modern shoppers trawling that world it denotes gifts suitable for girls. Kamila Shamsie's passionate new novel, set in the early twentieth century, intertwining themes of war, colonialism and gender, works at one level through sensual image, giving us also the pink flesh inside split figs, the pink of slaughtered men's blood dissolving into the water of streams, the pink of the sweaty faces of sahibs sipping sundowners in their clubs. Individual characters, drawn together by historical imperatives, change each other, like tints laid side by side in a watercolour.

At the heart of the novel lies the fabled city of Peshawar, site of ancient civilization, spilling with exquisite streets, houses and fruit orchards, now under British rule. Buried somewhere near the city is a lost, legendary silver circlet, which seems to stand for the enduring power of myth and memory, the heroic capacity of human beings to struggle and endure. The circlet finally turns up again amid scenes of resistance and carnage.

Shamsie keeps her symbolism firmly under control, deploying a clear, plain narrative style and a traditional realist form. These work well, given how much of the novel is necessarily expository, packed with names and historical facts. Its publication neatly timed to coincide with the anniversary of the First World War, A God in Every Stone concerns itself with stories left out of official accounts. Opening in the summer of 1914, it shows us first Vivian Rose Spencer, ardent young English archaeologist falling in love with the sites of the Ottoman Empire, falling in love also with Tahsin Bey, the Turkish scholar who, as a friend of her father's, has taught her Greek, encouraged her to study at UCL and invited her to join him on a dig. We are given little sense of the actual work involved, but strongly sense Viv's scholarly enthusiasm. When war is declared, Viv's parents summon her home to London.

Tahsin Bey, bidding her what both hope will be only a temporary farewell, reveals his political sympathies at the same time. Viv, though benefiting from the still unusual freedom granted to Englishwomen to attend university, is not interested in politics, has no sympathy for the suffragettes, and spouts platitudes about Empire and Natives. Her stupidity will have a tragic effect, one the reader sees coming early on.

Tragedy also unfolds on the battlefields of northern France, where we meet one of the sons of Peshawar, Quayyum Gul, who serves with the 40th Pathan regiment as a loyal servant of the British Empire, first in Calcutta, helping to suppress a Bengali uprising against the Raj, and now deployed to fight for the Raj against the Germans. Quayyum has fallen in love with French people, French culture, French landscapes, but this romanticism fades once he is wounded at Ypres. Shamsie swerves away from detailing that much-described battle in favour of showing Quayyum rescued by his faithful sepoy Kalam and brought to safety, incurring a debt of gratitude that gets called in later on in the story.

Viv, breaking down after working as a VAD in a military hospital in Camberwell, returns to Peshawar to pursue her archeological research. Quayyum, meanwhile, becomes steadily disenchanted with British domination of his country, grows increasingly radicalised, his soldierly commitment now transferred to the cause of his own people.

The novel ends with the Peshawar massacre of 1930, the narrative speeding up, almost whirling between different points of view as it depicts the terror on the streets, the violence and chaos. Vivian retreats into the background, as we feel she must. What remains, like a beautiful bas-relief, is the image of the people of Peshawar honouring their dead, not with poppies but with red rose petals.

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