This novel, which was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015 has an epic reach with a complex plot and large cast of characters. It tells the story of Vivian Rose Spencer, unusually, for the times, a young female archaeologist, who comes of age just before the First World War, experiences the war as a nurse in Britain but leaves for Peshawar, India in 1915 in search of a silver circlet belonging to the 6th century Greek writer and explorer, Scylax. A second narrative thread runs parallel, the story of Qayyum Gul, a Peshawari, who fights for the British Indian Army during the war, loses an eye and returns home to Peshawar. There he joins the movement led by Khan Abdul Ghaffer Khan to set up schools ‘untainted by the superstition of the mullahs and the brainwashing of the British’. Without going into the complexities of the plot, the action for them both culminates in Peshawar in April 1930 where a massacre takes place in the Street of Storytellers: the British gun down many Indians, protesting peacefully and unarmed, and then ship the bodies quickly off the scene in lorries to conceal the numbers killed.
This is a historical novel, with much interesting historical and cultural information which adds to its rich texture. The quest for Scylax’s circlet is partly a ‘frame’ narrative: we first meet Vivian on her first dig in Labraunda, Turkey. She falls in love with the Turkish archaeologist and friend of the family Tahsin Bey, who tells her the story of Scylax from the 6th century BC who explored the source of the Indus for the Persian emperor, Darius. This sets up one of the main themes of the novel, which is returned to in different guises, that of the relationship between empire and its subjugated peoples and of course the relationship between the Carians and Persians mirrors that of the Indians and the British. Within this issues of identity and loyalty are explored and Shamsie depicts well the complexity of Indian identity in Peshawar at that time- Najeeb explains that in 1915 many Peshawaris will speak their language, Hindko, and the Pathans’ language, Pashto, as well as Urdu and English. However, this picture of a harmonious co-existence of languages and cultures is that of Najeeb, who remains loyal to the British, partly because of his interest in archaeology and later career at the museum. His brother, Qayyum, in his espousal of the peaceful pursuit of independence, has a different take on the British and develops differetn loyalties.
Details of the First World War experience of both Viv and Qayyum are explored. Viv’s experiences as a VAD are treated rather cursorily but she is changed by seeing the terrible sufferings and disfigurements of soldiers from the front, as were so many, and benefits from the relaxation of attitudes to British women to be able to travel to Peshawar alone in 1915. Qayyum’ s experience of convalescence in the Brighton Pavilion was interesting- and it was new to me that Indians who fought on the British side were hospitalised there. The city of Peshawar at that time is brought vividly to life too with its mulberry trees and willows, the rich vibrancy of its Street of Storytellers-yet telling us also that the public space belongs to men and the only women seen are those in a burqa. The lengthy final section is based on historical fact, fictionalising the massacre of 23rd April 1930 at Qissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar.
Now, although the last section is gripping in its account of the massacre I found myself only partly engaged and I think this is because a sub-plot and its characters, the sisters-in -law, Diwa and Zarina, were introduced at a fairly late stage in the novel. I found it difficult to care about the fate of characters whom I’d only just met. I felt the structure of the novel had a similar negative effect on the plot early on, when Vivien falls in love with the older archaeologist Tahsin Bey. We’d seen no build up to her feelings nor got to know either of them as a character and somehow this meant that I didn’t really believe in or care about this love affair either. And I think this has to do with structure and content rather than characterisation- the development of Vivien as a character, her growing maturity and independence are convincingly drawn. Nor is it to do with Shamsie’s ability to depict relationships – the relationship between Viv and Najeeb and between the two brothers, Najeeb and Qayyum are touchingly portrayed. I think my lack of engagement at times with the novel is because the author is trying to do too much. She has many interesting ideas which she wishes her characters and plot to convey, but there are too many of them for a novel of this length. It would have been better to have written a 700 page novel and really develop those themes through character, plot and subplot, or to keep to this shorter length and to limit the characters and ideas.
Despite this, I found the ending, which comes back to the story of Styclax, intriguing. Styclax has incurred the wrath of Darius because his account of the Carian rebel, Heraclides, shows him to be more glorious than the Persians. When asked why he had done this he replies ” Because I loved Heraclides”. So is the final word that love for another individual is stronger than loyalty or love for country or nation- particularly where the country has the dominant force of empire? Or does he love him because he is a Carian and the message is that we love best our own? These are huge, important and timeless themes and I’m looking forward to Kamila Shamsie exploring them further in her next novel.