With very few exceptions, the best novels of the Great War are the ones that not only give an idea of the battlefield, but also locate the conflict within a historical frame, and give a sense of the War as a turning point in the lives of individuals and societies.
Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone does the job very well. It has just been issued in paperback by Atavist Books, and the publishers have kindly sent me a copy for review. I’m glad they did.
The novel begins in Turkey, where Vivian Rose Spencer, an independent young Englishwoman, is helping at an archaeological dig, and falling in love with a Turk. The book follows her back to England, to war service as a V. A. D., and to India, where she is intrigued by the story of a lost treasure. Parallel to her story is that of Qayyum Gul, a Pathan in the British Army. At the start of the novel he is fighting near the town he calls ‘Vipers’. After being hideously wounded he is cared for in Brighton (at the Royal Pavilion, which the King made over to Indian casualties for the duration, perhaps with the feeling that its Orientalism would make them feel at home.)
In England Qayyum Gal comes to see the British differently, and to understand some of the less pleasant assumptions behind colonial rule. (Why are Englishwomen suddenly removed from the task of caring for Indians, to be replaced by male nurses?)Returning to Peshawar, he has to decide who he is, as man and Indian. Should he, as the man who saved his life demands, join the fight against the English? When that man is murdered, should it be Qayyum’s duty to avenge him? Ghandi preaches non-violence; can a Pathan sincerely follow that philosophy?
The novel has a wide geographical range, but is set in the context of a wider historical one. The main action is in two sections – first, the war years, when the lives of both the main protagonists are turned around, and then a dozen years later in India, and the confused events leading up to the Peshawar massacre of 1930. But Viv and her young Indian protegé know their Herodotus, whose mentions of the explorer Scylax not only show the link between Western and Indian cultures two and a half millennia ago, but also suggest possible hints of betrayal, which link thematically to the main narrative.
The book’s story is of random connections and unforeseen consequences. The big picture of history is made up of small acts with motivations irrelevant to larger historical forces. Tragedies happen when people are in the wrong place at the wrong time; betrayals occur without being intended.
The book is extremely readable. Kamila Shamsie is a storyteller with a gift for sending her narrative in unexpected directions; she also makes you care about her characters. I shall look out for more of her novels.