Kamila Shamsie is one of my favorite South Asian writers and she’s going to be at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, so I dove at the chance to review A God in Every Stone, her latest book. It is a sprawling story that spans Turkey, World War One, and colonial Peshawar. It is a hugely ambitious novel, but it just might be a little too big.
The story starts out with Vivian Rose, a young and idealist archaeologist on a dig in Turkey before the outbreak of World War I. While in Turkey she is introduced to the story of a golden circlet, with which she becomes obsessed. Meanwhile, war breaks out and we are introduced to Qayyam Gul, a soldier from Peshawar fighting in the trenches on behalf of Britain. Eventually his path crosses with Viv’s in Peshawar where she is continuing her quest for the golden circlet. See? Things in the story are geographically quite far reaching.
I loved so much about this book and the themes of colonialism, war and women’s rights are so important. Much of the story is set in Peshawar in the final days of the Indian Raj. Shamsie highlights how important it has always been in geo-politics, whether it be 2000 years ago, in colonial days or now. Peshawar truly sits at the crossroads of history. She also shed light on the active involvement of South Asians in World War I under the banner of Britain and how this contributed to their fight for Independence.
My one criticism of the book is that it may have attempted to cover too much ground. In particular, the early part of the novel in Turkey lost its purpose as the novel went on. I wasn’t overly interested in how it contributed to the larger narrative.
On a personal note, I was fascinated by the talk of archaeological discoveries near Peshawar. This took me back to my Master’s degree when I studied Buddhist iconography in the 5-8th centuries. Most people do not realize that Pakistan was an important center for Buddhism and I’m glad Shamsie took the time to point this out.
Who would like this book? This book is definitely for fans of the British Raj. It’s setting in Peshawar, rather than the more conventional tales of Delhi, Simla and Calcutta, make it stand apart. I also liked that it dealt with the early days of the Independence movement instead of the end days. Novels set at archaeological digs are also a soft spot for me, so like The Visitors, which i reviewed earlier this week, A God in Every Stone scratched that itch as well. The perspective on Buddhism also reminded me of The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration.