The inescapable past: novelist Kamila Shamsie unearths some beauty from the darkness of history
Kamila Shamsie’s 2009 novel Burnt Shadows is preoccupied with unearthing lives and events that have ceased to exist. This theme of reconstruction, both past political as well as historical, continues to be the focus in her most recent novel A God in Every Stone. Shamsie is the author of five novels so far, In the City by the Sea, Salt and Saffron, Kartography, Broken Verses and Burnt Shadows, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and translated into 20 languages.
A God in Every Stone begins with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and culminates with the Civil Disobedience Movement in undivided India in 1930. This time span remains the core of the novel, which is otherwise historically sweeping with events beginning as far back as 515 BC when “a greater part of Asia was discovered by Darius”. The narrative then takes place in Labraunda in western Turkey, followed by a war-torn London and finally an unsettled Peshawar, which is simmering with rebellion against the British.
Shamsie demonstrates a staggering command of history and politics, which she manages to deftly weave into a fictional narrative. She lightens historical fact by drawing intriguing characters such as the Turkish archaeologist Tahsin Bey and his young English protégé Vivian Rose Spencer, and later Vivian’s protégé, the young Pashtun Najeeb Gul. All three are pivotal to the historical momentum that develops throughout the novel.
The story begins in Labraunda in 1914, where the intellectual and enigmatic Tahsin Bey is leading an archaeological dig in search of the mythical coronet of Scylax. (This silver leaf crown is said to have been presented by Darius to his loyal general Scylax.) With the onset of the war in Europe, Tahsin Bey’s search is abruptly terminated. A young Vivian Spencer, who has been on the dig with him, returns back to London to participate in the war effort. Bey and Spencer have also fallen in love and she eagerly awaits the end of the war to be reunited with him. Here Shamsie skilfully offsets the delicate emotions of love against the horror and trauma revealed by war.
As Vivian continues her search for the coronet she heads to Peshawar where she meets Qayyum Gul, a young Pathan who is returning to Peshawar after serving in the British Indian Army and losing an eye at Ypres. Shamsie perceptively touches upon the confusion which Indian soldiers confronted when they began to question their loyalties to the Empire. She says of Qayyum Gul: “He left because for a moment he pictured himself in the uniform of the Indian army, and what he felt was shame.”
Although Vivian is unsuccessful in her attempt to discover the buried artefact on her trip to Peshawar, she does however leave behind the seeds of her research in her 12-year-old protégé Najeeb Gul, Qayyum’s brother. Fifteen years later, and long after Vivian has returned to her life in London, Najeeb calls her back to Peshawar with news that he is on the verge of a discovery.
The characters’ voices feel unaffected throughout the narrative and Shamsie’s feel for language often sparkles through in her depictions of the landscapes of Turkey and around Peshawar – all the while portraying the brutality of war in London. She writes of the Peshawar Valley: “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.”
What Shamsie has successfully achieved in A God in Every Stone is to be able to use the form of the novel itself as a means of excavating the past. However, at times Shamsie’s attention to detail can leave the narrative cluttered and her voice mildly pedantic, especially in the second half of the novel. The almost thriller-like pace here sits awkwardly against the elegiac beauty of the first half. But these are only minor concerns: the true heart of this novel lies in the powerful glimpses of hope and redemption that Shamsie offers the reader, even as the inevitable consequences of war close in on Qayyum, Najeeb and Vivian.
Upholding a critical sensitivity to human frailty, Shamsie manages to unearth something beautiful, however evanescent, from the depths of darkness which surround civilisations old and new. With A God in Every Stone, Shamsie continues to preserve her status as an outstanding talent in the global literary terrain.
Erika Banerji is a freelance writer and reviewer and a regular contributor to The National. She lives in London.
Updated: April 10, 2014 04:00 AM