When the world is at war or a country is claiming its independence from an empire, what’s the point of digging up the ancient past? Current events keep overtaking Vivian Rose Spencer, Tahsin Bey, and Najeeb Gul as they search for a silver circlet belonging to a Carian explorer named Scylax. The circlet was a gift from Darius of Persia but was lost centuries ago when the Carians (who lived in what is now western Turkey) rebelled. Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone skips from Turkey in 1913 to Peshawar in 1919 and 1930. All three of the archaeologists are enamored of ancient history, to the point where they often grow oblivious to the increasingly dangerous world around them. In spite of warnings from well-meaning family members on all sides, the circlet might get Vivian and Najeeb killed purely by accident.
A God in Every Stone begins with a scene that carries the familiar tone of the halcyon days before World War I. Vivian is assisting the excavate the remains of Labraunda in Turkey, along with Tahsin Bey and three German archaeologists. News of war sends everyone but Tahsin Bey home to their respective countries. Vivian finds work as a VAD nurse before she breaks in the face of needless dead and horrific mutilation. To escape the war and the pressures of British home life, Vivian flees to Peshawar on the trail of the silver circlet. A letter from Tahsin Bey with a reference to a dig that happened outside of Peshawar during the 1909/1910 season gives her a small hope that the circlet may in fact have travelled from Turkey to the Indus valley after Scylax disappeared from the historical record.
The first half of A God in Every Stone is narrated from the perspective of a Pashtun veteran of the Battle of Ypres as well as from Vivian’s perspective. While Vivian looks back to the distance past and lives in the company of British officers and their wives who are trying desperately to preserve the good ol’ days of the Empire, Quyyam Gul returns home to Peshawar after loosing an eye and most of his friends and comrades at Ypres (which he refers to as Vipers). Quyyam Gul tries to find a life for himself, but his bitterness and anger make it hard for him to settle. Meanwhile, his young brother becomes Vivian’s pupil in archaeology, history, and ancient Greek after learning how keen and curious he is. The culminating event of the first part of the book is Quyyam delivering his brother to Vivian’s bungalow to return her books and gifts to Najeeb. Najeeb is required to give up his lessons. The family and Quyyam have decided that it’s not proper for an adolescent boy to spend so much time alone with an Englishwoman. He should be with his people, Quyyam says.
In the later half of the book, the three characters continue on paths they’ve either chosen for themselves or relegated themselves to. Vivian returns to University College in London to teach, excavating when she can. Quyyam becomes an activist in a non-violent independence movement. Najeeb becomes an archaeologist and historian himself. Unlike Vivian, he never gives up on the silver circlet. Unlike most novels, the various plot threads of A God in Every Stone do not eventually knot themselves together. Instead, the main characters bump into each other now and then, but they are mostly solitary. Narrative niceties do not bend to actual history.
Shamsie’s characters show us the deeply seated prejudices and racism between the English and the Turks and the English the Pashtun, Daris, Rajputs, and other ethnic groups of what would become Pakistan and India. The end of the novel, centered on the events of the Qissa Khwani Bazaar Massacre on 23 April 1930, are told Rashomon-style. The day is replayed through the perspectives of all the major characters as they race across Peshawar trying to find each other. Though the novel’s beginning is set up as an archaeological hunt, that is not what A God in Every Stone becomes. Rather, the silver circlet is a MacGuffin to get the characters moving around the globe. Nor is the book about bonding between disparate characters or a journey of personal discovery like many novels. The longer I read, the more I circled back to the question of how the characters related to history. Vivian and Najeeb are firmly in the camp of the past. As long as they can keep digging, they’re content with the world. Quyyam represents the Independence movement. Looking forward to freedom from the British helps keep him from looking back to the disaster at Ypres and the loss of his best friend.
The past and the future collide again and again in A God in Every Stone and, as it was in real life, the conflict remains unresolved. In most novels, this would be a bad thing. I’ve complained about loose ends in books often enough myself. But A God in Every Stone‘s ambiguous ending is fitting. History, past and current, is messy. Most of it won’t make sense without a few decades of hindsight to separate meaning from chaos and signal interference. Perhaps the answer to the question this book poses is to look both backwards and forwards. History brought us to where we are, but change can bring us somewhere better.
Notes on bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend for readers who have trouble remaining in the present or who feel that the future is predetermined. Also recommend for readers who like to think of history as a tidily constructed story of progress.