Kamila Shamsie’s fiction crosses international boundaries. Burnt Shadows, her last novel, was a globe-trotting novel set in Japan, India, Afghanistan,...moreKamila Shamsie’s fiction crosses international boundaries. Burnt Shadows, her last novel, was a globe-trotting novel set in Japan, India, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and the US. I said of that novel that it was about people caught in “the tidal swell of history”, and it is a comment that could apply usefully to her new novel, A God in Every Stone.
In his histories, the father of the subject, Herodotus, told the story of Scylax, a man from Caryanda, who set off on a journey from the city of Caspatyrus, in the land of the Pactyike. This city is modern-day Peshawar, in the borderland of western Pakistan, close to the Afghan border. Shamsie uses this story to bookend her new novel, as her own characters travel to Caspatyrus, or Peshawar. As with Burnt Shadows, Shamsie uses a historical setting to explore more modern issues. In a novel that covers twenty-odd years in the life of its central characters – archaeologist Vivian Spencer, and Pathan soldier Qayyum Gul and his brother Najeeb – from the battle fields of Ypres to the streets of Peshawar – they become involved in a quest for an ancient artefact as the British rule in this city begins to loosen, and violence spills out onto its streets.
A God in Every Stone contains moments of descriptive brilliance. It is no surprise to learn Shamsie was selected by Granta as one of the Best of Young British Novelists; there are lines here to savour. She is very good on the minutiae of a life, of creating those moments that live on the page with intensity. The relationships between Vivian, Qayyum and Najeeb are expertly drawn, and when her focus narrows to the interactions between them, Shamsie’s novel truly sings. There is a scene in a train carriage, headed towards Peshawar, when Vivian meets Qayyum for the first time, and you can taste the tobacco laced in the air, the dust of the landscape rushing by, and the fizzling heat of fascination they breed in each other. In such scenes Shamsie manages to ask many of the novels overarching themes with economy and grace, such as when Qayyum muses on what it means to be Pashtun, uncomfortable at first with such description, and Vivian attempts to navigate, somewhat unsuccessfully, the cultural differences that divide them.
For all its success, however, there are moments when A God in Every Stone does fail. The first half of the novel covers two years after the First World War, and the second a short number of days in April 1930. The first half of the novel rushes through history, barely allowing the reader time to catch a breath – we are pulled along by that tidal swell of history. In these post-WW1 moments, it is difficult to gain much emotional understanding of Vivian, and even less of Qayyam; they are characters suffering history, buffeted by its storm. It is only in the second half that we truly begin to appreciate the characters. Certainly the first half is not wasted – this history feeds into the characters and affects them and their actions – but in comparison with the effort and control Shamsie exerts in the second half, the first feels underdrawn.
A God in Every Stone, then, whilst not as successful as Burnt Shadows, is nevertheless a strong, potent novel, whose historical canvas is used to tell another riveting, important story with contemporary resonances. Shamsie should be applauded for writing about such intersections of history, where culture and faith come into conflict with politics and identity; few novelists are willing to take on the ‘Big Subjects’. That she does so without becoming dogmatic or dull, and retaining heart within her narrative, is testament to her brilliance. A God in Every Stone might not be Shasmie at her finest, but it is a damn sight better than many another writers’ best.(less)