A God In Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

I must admit, I delayed reading this book. Traversing two continents and digging through the remains of three empires, I am not ashamed (well, maybe slightly!) to concede that I was put off by the mere scope of this novel. Jumping from 515bc to 1914 in the first two pages didn’t help matters (I mean there’s historical fiction and then there’s this!) but I pressed on and I’m glad I did. The sheer ambition of this novel is admirable. Centred around the lives of Vivian Spencer, an aspiring English archaeologist and Qayyum Gul, the young Pathan and world war veteran, Shamsie deals with the interwoven stories, lives and breadths of human history and empire in an evocative and erudite manner. Whilst some have criticised the character development, I found her portrayal of Vivian as slightly aloof effective. Shamsie could have encumbered the story with vivid, sprawling descriptions of Vivian’s experience as a V.A.D nurse. I’m glad that she didn’t. After all, such accounts are readily available and have been the focus of many literary works. What is perhaps less readily available is her emphasis on the historically diverse and culturally rich city of Peshawar.
Shamsie’s treatment of empire and colonial attitudes are clear and beautifully surmised in the closing passages of the book, yet something in the execution of the novel fell short for me. It felt rushed and instead of imparting any lasting impression once I had finished (as all great books do), I was left wanting more. Whilst this was disappointing, I will say that it is not the defining feature of the novel. What I take from it, what stood out most for me was discovering a (now) Pakistani city as the focal point, as a crossroads for empires throughout the ages, “.. Because there’s more past than present there. Two and a half thousand years of history beneath its soil.” It was refreshing to read a pre 9/11, pre partition telling of the city as a vibrant, historical place of interest and even better to see a Pakistani female writer putting it back on the map.

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