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A God in Every Stone

by Kamila Shamsie

At the heart of this wonderful novel is a quest. The ancient Greek explorer, Scylax, who first navigated the length of the Indus River, apparently wore a silver circlet with a lovely design of fig leaves and fruit around it. Somewhere in the intervening centuries, the circlet was lost, and this is the story of a trio of archaeologists, all driven by a desire to find this beautiful object and, in that journey, encounter war, love, loyalty and devastating betrayal.

A naive young student, Viv Spencer, goes to Greece to join a dig in 1914. There she falls in love with Tahsin Bey, the lead archaeologist, and friend of her father's. With the outbreak of the war, she returns to England and her story is taken up again in 1915 when she goes to Peshawar in search of Bey who has since gone missing. While there, she takes a Pakistani boy, Najeeb, under her wing and kindles in him a passion for the past and the desire to be an archaeologist himself. Fifteen years later, she finds herself searching for Najeeb and caught up in a brutal insurrection.

Shamsie's description of Peshawar, a city founded in the 6th century BC at the eastern end of the Khyber Pass, is captivating. It sits in a valley where the confluence of two rivers merge to create one body of water 'the blue of the melted snow running down from the Himalayas, the brown of silt and turbulence racing across from Kabul' in itself emblematic of its place on the crossroads between Central and South Asia. From the Street of Storytellers with its trellis-work balconies to the British-built cantonment with its wide leafy boulevards, Shamsie recreates the atmosphere of a culturally vibrant yet inevitably doomed city stifled under colonial rule. And the story of the brutal crackdown by the British of non-violent protest is one piece of the jigsaw which represents the political complexity of the region. An explosive mixture of religious and nationalist antagonism, fuelled by Soviet and Western interference, has created conditions where terrorism thrives and which had its terrible nadir on 16 December 2015 when the Taliban attacked a school, killing 148 children and teachers.

Shamsie doesn't explain, her style is episodic, and she makes her readers work hard, but it is absolutely worth the effort. Like her protagonist, she seeks to uncover the layers which make up the history of a place, peeling them away, back and further back. It is a brilliant and challenging novel which leaves you with more questions than answers and would be a very rewarding book group choice.

Published by Bloomsbury, 320pp.

The paperback is out in March 2015.

Clare Chandler


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