No matter how they decide, they will be traitors

Burka, turban, tiara
(a review of ‘A God in Every Stone’ by Kamila Shamsie)

My first impression was to praise the publisher to get this novel translated into Hungarian. Even today, postcolonial literature is mostly unknown in Hungary. Like in the case of refugees, average Hungarians tend to say „it’s none of our business, we were the good guys without any colonies, European superpowers should deal with this and leave us alone”. In spite of all this, if a Hungarian reader gives a chance to Kamila Shamsie’s novel A God in Every Stone (written originally in English), it will be a magnificent experience.

We follow three people’s emotional and mental development between 1914 and 1930. There is Vivian Spencer, daughter of an English intellectual, who was motivated by her father to be an archeologist. She takes part in excavations, has no problem with physical work and her best friend is a suffragette. And there is Qayyum Gul, a Pathan from the borderlands of British India, who is fighting heroically in the british army during the First World War. After getting severely injured, he partially loses his sight and starts to see the world differently, even in a figurative sense. These two people, different in almost every way, are linked together by Najeeb Gul, Qayyum’s brother and Vivian’s pupil, who learns a lot about his homeland’s history and hidden treasures.

While archeologists dig up Buddha statues, ancient jewels and gods carved in stone, our protagonists have to deal with their own difficult and tragic times. They are haunted by constant remorse for losing their beloved ones and facing the fact that no matter how they decide, they will be traitors. In the end, Najeeb and Vivian escape to self-education and Qayyum to the Indian independence movement, all turning against a system ruled by white men in some way. The zenith of the story is the Peshawar massacre in April 1930, where English soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed locals. Shamsie increases the tension until the bitter end, and there is no redemption at all: even after finishing the book, we are followed by the memory of the unmarked grave of hurriedly buried corpses.

A God in Every Stone is a bit slow, but the beautiful and almost poetic depictions of the Indian borderlands are as enjoyable as the adventures. I smelled jasmine, tasted spices, heard muezzins and tale-tellers, felt the humid heat. Another strenght of the novel is that Shamsie, who is a Pakistani-British dual citizen, has an insider’s point of view in both the English and the Indian culture. Her female characters are really intriguing, but men also act and speak in an authentic way. The author is also good at mixing fiction with historical figures, the ancient Scylax as well as the 20th century Ghaffar Khan.

The book was nominated to the Walter Scott prize in 2015, and I think it should have won it, too. Shamsie is not only talented in the genre of historical fiction, invented by the Scottish master in the age of Romanticism, but she is also able to turn it upside down with such a provocative-postcolonial setting. In my opinion, both the author and her work are overall winners.