THE PLOT: 1914 Vivian Spencer is a young Englishwoman who dreams of becoming an archaeologist. She accompanies her father’s friend on a dig in Turkey but as World War One breaks out, she must return to London to work as a VAD nurse. Among the screams of dying men scarred by the trenches, a note reaches Viv about a possible treasure among the ruins in Peshawar, India (modern day Pakistan). Leaving the trauma of the hospital, she goes to India in 1915 and encounters an injured Indian soldier who is returning home after the horror of Ypres. As the backdrop of the Indian independence movement grows, Viv and the soldier are bound together in ways they wouldn’t expect.
RATING: This is a solid four-star novel. It’s well-written with a strong theme, detailed characters and a decent plot arc, against a beautiful setting of 20th century India/Pakistan. It’s not the most literary, high-brow work but it does what it says on the tin and what a novel is supposed to do – it entertains the reader and transports you to another place. The central quest is an archaeologist looking for an ancient circlet, which drives the plot forward. But, at its heart, the novel is about the maturation, independence and assertion of rights by women and subjugated people.
GOOD BITS: This novel is rooted in my beloved Classical Antiquity – Herodotus’s Histories weaves through its core. The conquest of the Indus Valley by the ancient Persians runs parallel to the British presence in India as a metaphor for loyalty to one’s country and the perils of Empire. This gave the novel a special charm, which endeared it to me straight away. I also liked how the characters were products of their experiences. It was realistic how they continually fought and reverted back to societies’ customs, habits and prejudices.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: There was a side plot running parallel to the main characters, which wasn’t given space to develop. It felt like there wasn’t enough of it in the body of the novel so it could have been omitted and the overall plot wouldn’t really have changed. I think its impact was lost because the ending was a bit ‘middle of the road’. It felt like the author, Kamila Shamsie, didn’t want a heart-breaking or happy ending, so she landed somewhere in the middle. This was anti-climactic and made the mini-side plot a bit pointless.
OVERALL: If you’re already a fan of historical fiction and/or ancient history, I’d definitely recommend this book. It’s entertaining and I learned a lot – I even had to dust my Herodotus off my shelf! I adored Shamsie’s ‘Home Fire’ and there’s lots of material, such as around burial of the dead, family duty and strong women, which she successfully captures in her later novel. Her continual use of classical antiquity in her novels means she’s a writer to whom I’ll return again and again.