A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

A God in Every Stone 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.

Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

Rebel Queen I love historical fiction set in India and was instantly intrigued when I saw that Michelle Moran’s new novel, Rebel Queen, was described as the story of Rani Lakshmibai who rebelled against the British by ‘raising two armies — one male, one female — and riding into battle like Joan of Arc.’ Once I started to read the book, I found that it wasn’t quite what I’d expected, although that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have read two of Michelle Moran’s other novels and while I think my favourite of the three is still The Second Empress, I still enjoyed this one and thought it was much better than Cleopatra’s Daughter.

Rani Lakshmibai (or Lakshmi as she is called throughout this novel) rules the state of Jhansi along with her husband, Raja Gangadhar Rao, until his death in 1853. As the raja has died leaving no biological male heir, Jhansi is annexed by the British East India Company, and during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 the rani and her people find themselves caught up in the middle of the conflict. By the rani’s side are her ten Durgavasi – a small, elite group of highly-trained, highly-skilled women who serve as both guards and trusted friends. It is through the eyes of one of these women, Sita Bhosale, that the story of Jhansi unfolds.

Sita Bhosale grows up in a small village many miles from the city of Jhansi and, like the other village girls and women, she lives in purdah, secluded from the view of men outside her family. After her mother dies in childbirth, her father tells her that there will not be enough money to provide a dowry for both Sita and her little sister. With very few options open to a young woman who fails to marry well, he suggests that she begin training for a position in the Durga Dal, the rani’s personal guard. Following several years of hard work, Sita has learned all the skills she needs – she can ride a horse and knows how to use a sword, a pistol and a bow – and soon she is on her way to Jhansi to become the rani’s newest Durgavasi.

As our narrator, Sita is a character who is easy to like. I enjoyed watching her train for the Durga Dal, I was fascinated by her descriptions of her early days in Jhansi where everything – the rani and raja’s court, life in the palace, the absence of purdah – is new and strange, and I sympathised as she found herself the target of the raja’s beautiful, scheming cousin, Kahini, one of her fellow Durgavasi. But from the title, Rebel Queen, and the description of the novel, I had expected this to be the story of Rani Lakshmibai rather than the story of Sita. We don’t really get to know the rani at all until the second half of the novel and only a few chapters at the end are spent on the events of the Sepoy Rebellion (the promised ‘raising of armies and riding into battle’), which was disappointing.

The author assumes the reader has no prior knowledge of Indian culture or history, so she has Sita explain to us how the British East India Company came to be in India, the meanings of customs such as purdah and the Hindu caste system, and the basics of Ayurvedic medicine. While I already knew some of the things Sita tells us, there were still lots of facts and details that were new to me, so this was both an entertaining and an educational read. However, I was surprised to read that the British were flying ‘the red and black Union Jack’ from the buildings of Jhansi, and this made me wonder about the overall accuracy of the novel!

Despite the few problems I’ve mentioned, I did find this an interesting and compelling story. I do think it would have been good to have had at least part of the novel written from the rani’s perspective, but I still enjoyed getting to know Sita and the women of the Durga Dal.

Note: This book has been published in the UK as The Last Queen of India and I think the UK title and description are more appropriate, giving a better idea of what the story is about. However, I have referred to the US edition throughout this post, as this was the version I received for review through NetGalley.

The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

The Goddess and the Thief “A diamond. A curse. An obsession.” These are the words on the front cover of Essie Fox’s third novel and they give us a good idea of the type of story we can expect to find inside. The Goddess and the Thief is a Victorian Gothic novel (like the previous two books by this author – The Somnambulist, which I’ve read, and Elijah’s Mermaid, which I haven’t) and combines a complex plot with an atmospheric setting and a sense of mystery.

The novel begins in colonial India, where a little girl called Alice Willoughby is growing up in the care of her beloved ayah, Mini, having lost her mother in childbirth. Alice loves India – she loves the warmth, the vivid colours, the stories Mini tells of Parvati and Shiva – and is heartbroken when her father decides to take her back to England to live with her Aunt Mercy. Alice is lonely and miserable in her new home and finds Mercy cold and uncaring. Things become even worse when she discovers that her aunt is a medium and that she will be forced to take part in Mercy’s fraudulent séances and other spiritualist activities.

Alice’s life reaches another turning point when she and Mercy meet the mysterious Lucian Tilsbury, a man who has recently returned from India and is planning to involve the two women in an elaborate scheme…a scheme revolving around the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the famous jewel claimed by the British at the end of the Anglo-Sikh war. Some say the diamond is cursed and others that it is blessed, but one thing that is certain is that it exerts a strange power over everyone who comes into contact with it.

You may be thinking that this sounds like The Moonstone, but while there are some similarities with the Wilkie Collins mystery, this is a very different book and the story surrounding the diamond took some surprising twists and turns which I definitely wasn’t expecting! I was particularly intrigued by the occasional appearances of Queen Victoria and the Maharajah Duleep Singh, two people for whom the Koh-i-Noor has a very important significance.

The scenes set in India at the beginning of the book were among my favourites and I was sorry when we left India behind for the gloom of Aunt Mercy’s house in Windsor. The mood of the novel then becomes increasingly dark and oppressive and I was pleased that tales of the Hindu gods and of Alice’s life in Lahore continued to be woven into the plot. I liked Alice as a central character and enjoyed following her adventures, while also feeling afraid and worried for her as she found herself betrayed, badly treated and unsure of whom to trust.

My only problem with The Goddess and the Thief was that there were certain passages which I found confusing and difficult to follow, partly because the use of opium played a role in the story, which meant that the boundaries between reality and unreality often became blurred. I appreciate that this was done intentionally, to make Alice’s situation even more frightening, but it was the one aspect of the novel that didn’t work very well for me. Of course, it could have been my own fault for not concentrating hard enough!

Having enjoyed both this book and The Somnambulist (this one slightly more than the first, I think), I will have to read Elijah’s Mermaid soon!

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies Sea of Poppies is the first book in the Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh and introduces us to a large and diverse cast of memorable characters who are thrown together on a voyage from India to Mauritius aboard a former slaving ship, the Ibis. Set in the 1830s just before the First Opium War, this is a long, detailed novel (and also quite a challenging one due to the various styles of dialogue and language Ghosh uses) but once I became familiar with the characters and their stories I found myself enjoying it more and more.

Each of the novel’s main characters comes from a different background and a different set of circumstances has led to each one being on board the Ibis, whether as a migrant, a prisoner or a member of the crew. Inevitably I found some of the characters more interesting than others; I was particularly intrigued by Neel Rattan Halder, the Raja of Raskhali, who is arrested for forgery and dispossessed of his lands, by Deeti, widowed after her husband succumbs to his opium addiction, and by Paulette Lambert, the orphaned daughter of a French botanist. These three people and many others are brought into the story one by one, but eventually their paths meet as the Ibis prepares to set sail for Mauritius.

I’m not really a big fan of novels set on ships (Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series is one of the few exceptions) so I was pleased to find that there are plenty of land-based sections in this one too. The descriptions of India are colourful and vivid throughout the novel, but the scene that sticks most in my mind is one from the beginning of the book which describes Deeti’s visit to the opium factory where her husband works. The author doesn’t shy away from showing us the horrors of opium addiction and withdrawal, as well as the health problems suffered by those who had to work with the drug and the trouble caused by so much land having to be devoted to poppy growth rather than other crops which could be eaten as food.

I’ve already mentioned that Amitav Ghosh uses language in some unusual ways in this novel, so I’ll try to explain what I mean. As well as Bengali and Hindi words being scattered throughout the pages, the Indian sailors (known as Lascars) have their own terminology, one of them (Serang Ali) speaks a form of pidgin English to communicate with the American second mate, Zachary Reid, while the European characters also draw on a stock of words and slang terms taken from various different languages. As you can imagine, when characters from different cultures are speaking to each other, things often become very complicated! A glossary would have made reading this book a lot easier, but unfortunately there wasn’t one (at least not in the edition that I read) so I just had to struggle along and console myself with the knowledge that sometimes the characters in the book were just as confused as I was!

Sea of Poppies was a fascinating read, but I was left with the feeling that it wasn’t a complete novel in itself – it finishes on a cliffhanger and with so many loose ends that reading the second book in the trilogy really is essential if you want to know what happens to the characters you’ve come to know and care about. I started River of Smoke immediately after finishing this one!

Death in Kashmir by M. M. Kaye

Death in Kashmir I have always thought of M. M. Kaye as an author of historical novels (such as the wonderful Far Pavilions) and although I was vaguely aware that she had also written a series of mystery novels, I had never really thought about reading them. Now that I’ve read the first one, Death in Kashmir, I will certainly be reading the others. What a great book this is!

Death in Kashmir was first published in 1953, but set a few years earlier in 1947, just as India is about to gain independence from Britain. Our heroine, Sarah Parrish, is attending what will probably be the final meeting of the Ski Club of India at Gulmarg, a resort in the mountains of Kashmir. Sarah is hoping for an enjoyable, relaxing holiday but the first sign of trouble ahead comes when another skier has a fatal accident on the slopes. Another death soon follows the first, but this time, the victim – a young woman called Janet Rushton – was able to share an important secret with Sarah before she died.

Sarah is now certain that neither death was accidental but all she wants is to leave Gulmarg and its secrets behind her and have nothing more to do with the whole business. When the skiing party breaks up she visits her aunt in Peshawar and tries to forget what she has learned. Soon, though, her promise to Janet pulls her back to Kashmir where she finds herself caught up in the mission her friend was working on before her death – and this time, Sarah’s own life could be in danger.

I loved this book from the very beginning. It’s so important that a first chapter pulls you straight into the story and this one did, right from the opening line – “Afterwards Sarah could never be quite sure whether it was the moonlight or that soft, furtive sound that had awakened her”. The rest of the story was equally engrossing: a perfect mixture of mystery, suspense, romance and espionage.

The descriptions of Kashmir are stunning. The first part of the book is set in winter on the snow-covered mountain trails of Gulmarg and later the action moves to the Dal Lake in the summer resort of Srinagar where Sarah takes over the lease on a houseboat that once belonged to Janet. Both of these locations are described beautifully, but Kaye also chooses just the right words and images to create a genuinely eerie and unsettling atmosphere. I found myself literally holding my breath as Sarah wondered who was standing outside the ski lodge in the dark, as she watched an unknown figure disappearing up a staircase and as she listened to footsteps on the boards of her houseboat in the night.

What makes Sarah’s situation even more dangerous is that she’s sure the enemy must be one of the group of skiers who were gathered at Gulmarg – the same group who are all now spending the summer in Srinagar. Who should she trust? The hostile Helen Warrender who makes no secret of her dislike for Sarah? The jovial, good-natured Hugo and his long-suffering wife, Fudge? Timid Meril Forbes and her domineering aunt? Or the handsome, polo-playing Captain Charles Mallory? When the villain was eventually revealed it didn’t come as a complete surprise – but I have to admit I had suspected almost everybody at some point, so one of my guesses was bound to be right!

The book is also interesting from the historical viewpoint, being set just before the end of the British Raj and the transfer of powers back to India. Through the stories of Sarah and the rest of the British community in Kashmir, I thought Kaye had perfectly captured the mood of a group of people who knew that their way of life was about to change forever.

I’m now looking forward to reading the other five Death In… mysteries. I just need to decide which one to read next!

Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald

Zemindar What a great book! A wonderful setting, a beautiful romance, characters I really cared about, an exciting story and lots of fascinating historical detail…definitely one of my favourite books of the year. I could see the influence of other books that I love – The Far Pavilions, Gone with the Wind and Jane Eyre – so it’s maybe not surprising that I loved this one too!

Zemindar is set in India before and during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Laura Hewitt, a single woman of twenty-four, is accompanying her newly married cousin Emily and her husband Charles Flood on a trip to India as Emily, at eighteen, is considered too young to travel without another female in the party. Laura is happy to accept the position of paid companion – her parents are both dead and she has no money of her own – but she is also aware that it may not be a good idea to be in such close proximity to Charles, whom she had been in love with herself before he turned his attentions to the younger, prettier Emily.

After a brief stay in Calcutta, Laura and the Floods travel to Lucknow where Charles is planning to make the acquaintance of his half-brother Oliver Erskine who lives a few days’ journey away on the estate of Hassanganj. Charles and Oliver have never met but knowing that his brother is unmarried and seems likely to remain that way, Charles hopes to convince Oliver to make him his heir. On arriving at Hassanganj, however, it quickly becomes obvious that this will not be an easy task. As a zemindar (hereditary landowner), Oliver has been used to leading an unconventional lifestyle on his huge and isolated estate and is not the sort of man who can be made to do anything he doesn’t want to do!

Laura and Emily are both fascinated by Oliver Erskine, though while he shows nothing but kindness to Emily, Laura finds him arrogant and annoying. But when mutiny breaks out among the Indian sepoys in the army and Hassanganj comes under attack, she begins to see a different side to Oliver. Taking refuge in the Residency in Lucknow where the British army is preparing to withstand a siege, Laura must decide how she really feels about Oliver and whether she can see a future for herself in India. First, though, she needs to stay alive…

There are so many things I loved about this book it’s difficult to know what to focus on first, but I think I should start by praising Valerie Fitzgerald’s beautiful writing. Zemindar was published in 1981, but I almost felt I was reading something written by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë. Laura’s story is told in the first person and her narrative voice sounds exactly as the voice of a 19th century woman should sound. The descriptions of India – the landscape, the culture, the contrast between life in the British colonial communities and the mofussil (the rural areas) – are stunning too.

The story takes place during a turbulent time in the history of British India, but don’t expect this to be a fast-paced novel – some parts are very slow allowing time for character development and fleshing out of the historical background. No previous knowledge is needed as we have the opportunity to learn along with Laura as the events leading up to the Indian Rebellion unfold. Later in the book, when the British begin to crowd into the poorly-fortified Residency for safety there are some quite graphic descriptions of the brutality and atrocities committed by both sides as Lucknow finds itself under siege and tales of even greater horrors suffered by those in Cawnpore reach Laura’s ears. Obviously we are seeing things from a British perspective but there’s some sympathy for the Indian point of view as well; having spent most of his life at Hassanganj, Oliver understands India and its people in a way that most of the other characters don’t and he tries to pass this understanding on to Laura.

The relationship between Laura and Oliver is a lovely and poignant one which takes its time to develop and is not without its difficulties and misunderstandings. At times it reminded me of the romance in Gone with the Wind, though while Oliver is similar in some ways to Rhett Butler, the quiet, sensible Laura is more like Jane Eyre than Scarlett O’Hara. Because I liked Laura and Oliver so much I was completely absorbed in their story and hoping for a happy ending for them both – it was not at all obvious whether they were going to get one so I was kept in suspense right to the end!

I hoped I’ve made it clear, though, that this book is not a fluffy romance or a silly bodice ripper. The romance is only one element of the story and is sometimes pushed into the background while we concentrate on the history, the battles and the sieges. My only disappointment on reaching the end of the book was discovering that Zemindar was Valerie Fitzgerald’s only novel. I know M.M. Kaye’s Shadow of the Moon is set during the same period so I’m hoping to read that one soon and see how it compares.

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

The Twentieth Wife This story of seventeenth century Mughal India is the first in a trilogy of novels describing the history behind the construction of the Taj Mahal. In The Twentieth Wife, Indian author Indu Sundaresan introduces us to Mehrunissa, later known as the Empress Nur Jahan. The Taj Mahal was actually built in memory of Nur Jahan’s niece, but that part of the story must be told in the other two books of the trilogy as this one concentrates on the tale of Mehrunissa and her love for Prince Salim, the future Emperor Jahangir.

Born to Persian refugees who are fleeing their country, Mehrunissa is abandoned by her impoverished father, Ghias Beg, on the road to India because with no money, no job and no home, he fears that he and his wife will be unable to take care of her. Luckily, fate steps in and Mehrunissa is rescued by the merchant, Malik, who befriends her parents and helps Ghias Beg find a position at the court of the Emperor Akbar. Growing up at court, Mehrunissa is taken under the wing of Akbar’s favourite wife, Ruqayya, and spends a lot of time in the zenana (harem) listening to gossip and witnessing the rivalries between the Emperor’s other wives and concubines.

Mehrunissa is only eight years old when she has her first glimpse of Prince Salim, who is marrying his first wife. That first glimpse is enough for her to make up her mind that one day she too will marry Salim and become Empress. When Salim falls in love with her several years later, it seems that Mehrunissa’s wish could come true…but of course, things don’t go exactly as planned! The Twentieth Wife follows Mehrunissa and Salim (or Jahangir as he becomes known) through years of separation, unhappy marriages and political intrigue. Do they eventually marry? Well, the title of the novel gives us a big clue so there are no surprises there, but the path that leads to Mehrunissa becoming Jahangir’s twentieth wife is a long and eventful one, and you can expect plenty of drama along the way: rebellions, assassination attempts and the scheming of Mehrunissa’s rival, Jagat Gosini.

I found a lot to like in this novel, but not everything worked for me. My biggest problem was that with the romance between Mehrunissa and Jahangir forming such a central part of the story, I didn’t find that romance convincing enough. I struggled to see the attraction of Jahangir during the first half of the novel. He was an alcoholic and an opium addict, too easily influenced by unscrupulous advisers and was even plotting to have his father murdered. He started to redeem himself later in the book, but is still not high on my list of favourite romantic heroes!

As for Mehrunissa, I found it difficult to accept that she could fall so passionately in love at the age of eight with a man she didn’t even know and that her love for him could continue into her adult life despite only meeting him once or twice more in all that time. I got the impression that she just wanted to marry him because he was a prince rather than who he was as a person and I didn’t start to really believe in their romance until near the end of the book.

I did like the way Sundaresan writes about India. The Twentieth Wife is a very descriptive book: the clothes, the buildings and gardens, the food and drink, the traditions and rituals of court and the zenana are all described in vivid detail. I do enjoy reading historical fiction novels set in India, though I’m sorry to say that most of the others I’ve read were written by non-Indian authors (M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions is my favourite). I wasn’t aware of Indu Sundaresan until I saw The Twentieth Wife listed as one of Aarti’s suggestions for A More Diverse Universe and I’m pleased I decided to give it a chance. I’m not sure I like this book enough to want to continue with the sequel, but it was good to have learned a little bit about a period of Indian history I knew nothing about. While I didn’t love this particular book I would still be happy to try one of Sundaresan’s others outside of the Taj Mahal trilogy.

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This was my second read for A More Diverse Universe hosted by BookLust.