When choosing what to read for this year’s #Diversiverse event, A God in Every Stone was the obvious choice as it also counts towards my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project (it was shortlisted for the 2015 prize). It’s the sixth novel by Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie, but the first one I have read.
The novel opens in July 1914 in Turkey, where twenty-two-year-old Vivian Rose Spencer is working on an archaeological dig led by Tahsin Bey, a friend of her father’s. Vivian is intrigued by tales of Scylax, the ancient Greek explorer who sailed down the Indus River from the city of Caspatyrus (now Peshawar in modern-day Pakistan) and was rewarded by King Darius I with a circlet decorated with figs. As Tahsin Bey tells her of his mission to find the legendary circlet, she finds herself falling in love with him, despite the age difference. Soon, though, she and Tahsin Bey are separated; war has broken out in Europe and Vivian must return home to serve as a VAD nurse in a London hospital.
Another thread of the novel follows a young Pashtun soldier from Peshawar, Qayyum Gul, who has been injured while fighting with the British army at Ypres in 1915. Qayyum is on his way home when he briefly meets Vivian on a train. Having been traumatised by her experiences of wartime nursing, Vivian has decided to travel to Peshawar to continue Tahsin Bey’s search for the Circlet of Scylax. In Peshawar, she gets to know a twelve-year-old boy called Najeeb and awakens in him a passion for archaeology and ancient history.
The stories of these three people – Vivian, Qayyum and Najeeb – come together again fifteen years later in 1930s Peshawar. I think I’ve said enough about the plot now, so I won’t tell you how their characters have developed in the intervening years or the circumstances that lead to their paths crossing again. What I will say, though, is that 1930 is a very significant year in the history of Peshawar, as a group known as the Khudai Khidmatgar campaign to end British rule in India through non-violent means. The novel reaches a dramatic conclusion on the Street of Storytellers during one of the defining moments of the Indian independence movement – and one that I confess to knowing nothing about before reading this book.
A God in Every Stone is an ambitious book, spanning three decades, crossing two continents and tackling some big themes, such as the rise and fall of empires and the loyalties of the people living within those empires. The settings – which include Turkish archaeological sites and the old walled city of Peshawar – are vividly described and I loved the way in which the story of Scylax was worked throughout the novel, its relevance not immediately clear but soon becoming obvious.
Although I found a lot to admire about A God in Every Stone, I still felt that there was something missing: an emotional connection to the characters. I found that the only one I really cared about was Najeeb – his innocence and enthusiasm as a twelve-year-old meant he instantly became my favourite character – but I struggled to feel anything for Qayyum and Vivian, despite the ordeals they both go through. It didn’t help that towards the end of the novel they are pushed into the background as two more characters – Zarina and her sister-in-law, Diwa – are introduced. Choosing to focus on new characters at such a late stage of the book meant that the final scenes set on the Street of Storytellers lacked the impact they should have had.
I did enjoy this book but I couldn’t help feeling that the author had tried to include too much in what is really quite a short novel. I think I would have preferred a longer book giving the characters more emotional depth and exploring the themes in more detail – or maybe a shorter book concentrating on just Vivian’s story or just Qayyum’s. Looking at other reviews of this novel, it was possibly the wrong Kamila Shamsie book for me to have started with; I’m looking forward to trying one of her earlier books and I think Burnt Shadows will be the next one I read.
16 thoughts on “A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie”
I enjoyed this Shamsie novel, but it’s not my favourite of hers. My favourites are Burnt Shadows and Broken Verses.
I think I’ll read Burnt Shadows next as I’ve seen so many people say it’s their favourite Shamsie novel.
This one sounded very interesting and was one of my first choices for the winners of this year, but I always regret having no emotional connection to the characters. Still, I’ll probably review it soon. I have posted your link!
Thanks. I haven’t made much progress with the 2015 shortlist yet, but I’m hoping to read some of the others soon.
I think I’ve read one of the books so far. And that one I read ages before it got on the short list. I have one or two in my pile, though.
I haven’t read this Shamsie novel, but I do really like the way she writes. My three favorites are Salt and Saffron, Kartography and Broken Verses. (I’ve heard Burnt Shadows is really good, too, I just haven’t read it yet.)
Her books all sound intriguing, but I think Burnt Shadows appeals to me the most. It’s good to know that you liked the other three. 🙂
I haven’t read any work by this author but your review has made me think it’s about time I did. Thank you
That’s great. I hope you like her writing.
It’s really hard to love a book when you feel no emotional connection to the characters! That happened to me with both my #diversiverse reads, too. All the characters fell flat Or maybe they were just the wrong books for the time. Regardless, I can see why this one would be frustrating – but hopefully the author’s other books are promising!
I did really like Kamila Shamsie’s writing so I’m going to try one of her other books and see if I enjoy it more than this one. Sorry to hear you had the same problem with your #Diversiverse reads too!
Burnt Shadows is the only book by Shamsie that I read, and I did quite like her writing. Not sure why I haven’t tried her other books yet! Thanks for the reminder to go check out her other works.
I’m looking forward to reading Burnt Shadows. So many people seem to have liked that one.
I just reread your review after posting mine, and I agree with what you said. I think that some of your ideas about characterization and the shift in major characters are reflected in my review but expressed in other ways. That is, I think I felt the same way you were feeling about the novel but interpreted my reaction a little differently. I definitely felt that distance. It is interesting to compare our impressions of the novel. It sounds like you know a lot more about the history of the area than I did.
I’ve read your review and we do seem to have felt the same way about this book. I thought it was a mistake to bring new characters into the story so near the end, as there wasn’t time to get to know them properly. I’ll add your link to my Walter Scott page. 🙂
Yes, you’re right. OK, thanks!