I was hugely impressed with Shamsie’s previous novel ‘Burnt Shadows’ but, my goodness, it was depressing. It starts with the atomic bomb in Nagasaki and ends with the trauma of 9/11. The characters were utterly human which is a polite way of saying that they were too complex to ever be that attractive. I thought the book was wonderful, but I didn’t ever want to inhabit it because the world it portrayed was so bleak. I realise this is all highly subjective, I’m just aware that ‘Burnt Shadows’ has been on my bookshelf for years and I’ve never wanted to re-read it, her new novel, ‘A God in Every Stone’ on the other hand, is going to be a book I return to time and again.
A lot of this is the fantastic management of the time period. ‘A God in Every Stone’ begins on a ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’ style archaeological dig. Now I’m a massive Agatha Christie fan and any book that reminds me of her Golden age colonial stories is going to make me happy. Yes, Vivian Rose is in love with a Syrian, but he’s her father’s friend and is twice her age and, as far as I’m concerned we’re back in familiar comfort-read territory. It seems so fitting for a book with this setting to contain a dubiously Freudian romance that the age gap becomes completely in keeping with the era. The only Shamsie twist is the ethnicity of the love interest and even this is justified through a wonderfully self-centred ‘British is Best’ narrative that makes it clear he is practically English because he’s clever and well educated.
I can’t overstate how much I enjoyed Shamie’s take on the colonial mindset. She is one of the few authors who have ever allowed me to work through my troubled conscience with regards to Agatha Christie’s British superiority complex. The issue with wanting to live in an Agatha Cristie world, apart from the threat of imminent murder of course, is that it would require a complete change of mind-set. I find it really hard to accept myself as a character who would think servants should stay in their place, that the National Health Service is a symptom of a destroyed social order or that all foreigners are intrinsically stupid and/or funny. Shamsie does an incredible job of letting me see the world through the eyes of Vivian. I finally understood what it meant to unquestioningly believe that the British Empire is a force for the good. Most novelists of the time don’t deal with this because it’s an unspoken element of all of their readers’ psyches. Modern writers either ignore it and impose modern ideologies on their characters or play a heavy-handed blame game. Vivian is intelligent, thoughtful and kind; she utterly inhabits a world of prejudices that we now think of as outdated and ignorant. Every writer who aspires to write historical fiction should read this book.
It says a lot for the novel that other half of the book, dealing the second protagonist, Quayyum Gul, is equally enthralling. Gul is wounded at Ypres, receives medical treatment at Brighton and is invalided back home to Peshawar. His moments on the battle field are as good as the best WWI literature, but it is his post-fighting life that makes this character impressive. Shamsie is a writer who excels in presenting how people get on with their lives after trauma and suffering. Her damaged characters do not have the luxury of escaping the world, instead they bring their experiences to bear on how they negotiate the complexities of loyalty, love and identity.
As you would expect in a book about archaeology, ‘A God in Every Stone’ is full of layers and hidden treasure. The Armenian genocide, the treatment of Indian soldiers, the burgeoning independence movements in the Indian sub-continent are all treated with respect and are seen convincingly through the eyes of different characters. Vivian and Quayyum Gul are superb dual protagonists, each reflecting on the themes raised by the other. The best novels make you feel like you have learned through reading them. I am a more thoughtful, better informed person for having read ‘A God in Every Stone’. It may not have won the Bailey’s Prize but it is a gem of a book and one that I cannot recommend highly enough.