A God In Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie

A God In Every Stone begins with Vivian Rose Spencer travelling up a mountainside in Labraunda. She’s there to join her father’s oldest friend, Tahsin Bay on an archaeological dig of Zeus’ Temple.

Her father, a man without sons, had turned his regret at that lack into a determination to make his daughter rise above all others of her sex; a compact early agreed on between them that she would be son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect. Taking upon himself the training of her mind he had read Homer with her in childhood, took vast pleasure in her endless questioning of Tahsin Bey about the life of an archaeologist every time the Turk came to visit, and championed her right to study Egyptology at UCL despite his wife’s objections…

Before the end of the dig, Vivian has reminded Tahsin Bey he told her about his desire to find the Circlet of Scylax, given to Scylax by Darius:

…a mark of the highest honour. But twenty years later when Scylax’s people, the Carians, rebelled against Darius’ Persians, Scylax was on the side of his countrymen, not his emperor.

Vivian and Tahsin Bey have also agreed to marry; he will visit London at Christmas and approach her father. But when they reach the coast to board a ferry, they discover war has broken out in Europe. Before they part, Tahsin Bey reveals that his grandmother’s family are Armenian and one day he intends to write about the bravery of the Armenians rebelling against the Ottoman Empire.

The outbreak of war prevents Tahsin Bey’s visit and only one letter reaches Vivian and her family. She takes work as a nurse and her father, a gynaecologist, pulls strings to have her transferred to a Class A auxiliary hospital, work that he says is almost as worthy as a son fighting at the front. Before she moves to the hospital, however, a man from the War Office visits her and wants to make copies of her maps from the dig in Turkey. He’s also keen to know about the Germans on the dig. Before the end of the meeting, she has betrayed Tahsin Bey.

Once Vivian’s established, Shamsie introduces Qayyum Gul, a Pashtun from Peshawar. He’s fighting in France for the allies. By the end of his first chapter, he’s fought at Ypres and the injury he’s sustained will see him sent to hospital in Brighton before being discharged and sent back to Peshawar.

Qayyum’s body jerked in anticipation of the bullets that would rip though him, but Kalam had a hand on his chest, telling him to hold still, the gunners were aiming at something else. You stay still too, Qayyum said, but Kalam braced on his elbows and used them as a pivot for arms, the rest of his body motionless as – again and again – he lowered his palms into the stream and slowly, hardly spilling a drop, brought them to Qayyum’s parched mouth, washed the blood from his face and tried to clean the mess that was his eye. With the stink of blood all around, the only light in the world came from those cupped palms, the shifting water within them.

As Qayyum returns to Peshwar, Vivian has left the war effort – to the horror of her father but delight of her mother – and is also on her way to Peshwar in search of something she thinks Tahsin Bey has pointed her towards. Their paths cross on the train and they will remain linked although their stories will play out separately for many years.

A God In Every Stone considers British rule in India from both the point of view of the Peshwars and the British. The Peshwars are largely represented by Qayyum and his brother, whose views differ, although other people’s views are considered later in the novel. The British view is filtered through Vivian and this gives Shamsie an opportunity to consider gender and the treatment of women as well as imperialism. She considers the point where the personal and the political meet and how the decisions of a country and its leaders affects individuals – friends and family.

The book’s very well written; sentences are balanced and conjure vivid images, particularly during the scenes of the Peshawar Disturbance at the end of the book. The themes are interesting. Despite this, I found the book as a whole unbalanced; there were parts I fully engaged with and others where I struggled although I found it difficult to articulate why. I wonder whether it was the structure, in the first half particularly, as the novel moves from place to place and its focus seems to shift. This is not a bad book but it was my first written by Kamila Shamsie and everything I’d heard meant that my expectations were probably a little too high.

0 thoughts on “A God In Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie

  1. I’d kind of hoped you’d love this when I saw your review because I bought this last week! I read and enjoyed her book ‘Broken Stones’ but my expectations for this one were more from the hype around it than my previous reading of her work! I might let this lie on the ‘to read’ pile for a bit!

    • Sorry! It’s one the shadow panel are broadly in agreement about, it just doesn’t always lift off the page even though all the right elements seem to be there. There are lots of people who love it though.

  2. I really liked A God in every Stone though I have read everything Shamsie has written and I too was a little disappointed in it. There was nothing I could definitely point to and says I didn’t like it just somehow didn’t work in quite the way it should have.

    • That’s interesting. Thanks, Ali. I have Burnt Shadows and it’s not put me off reading it so I’ll give her another go later.

  3. What you say about Vivian’s father’s expectations really interested me. He obviously wants to champion her and let her do things that a woman can’t normally do during the time period, but this seems to come at the expense of regarding her as a woman at all, and I wondered whether that appeared to have any effect on her as a character. It also seems very deterministic–as the weight of parental expectations often are. Does that come through at all in the novel, or does Shamsie evade looking too closely at the potential consequences of that kind of upbringing?

    • She becomes determined to forge her own path and in Peshawar, her behaviour becomes offensive to some – both English and the locals but really it switches to the consequences of her betrayal of Tahsin Bey and what she thinks he wanted her to do. The theme of imperialism is much stronger. We see the consequences of Vivian’s behaviour, particularly her trying to be ‘good’ and please her father by telling the War Office information but it’s never closely considered.

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