The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas is a story of two women separated by 70 years but linked by a shawl and a lock of hair. It’s a mystery story, a historic novel and several love stories all rolled into one. And best of all it combines two things I love – India and a beautiful hand woven shawl. Throw in my past experience of Rosie Thomas’s novels and this one looked set to be a sure-fire winner, so much so that when I learned that the paperback was due to be published recently I begged Vlad from Curiousbookfans.co.uk to write and ask the publishers for a copy. He did, they sent it and I cancelled all other activity for as long as it would take to read this rather chunky new novel.
Mair is a bit of a drifter. She has no man in her life, not much in the way of a job, and she’s the ‘alternative’ member of her family – the one who ran away to join a circus and has drifted along ever since. She couldn’t really be much different from her Grandmother Nerys, the sensible wife of a Presbyterian preacher. Nerys and her husband Evan went to India – he as a missionary, she as a missionary’s wife and part-time schoolteacher. Yet despite their differences, the stories of the two women are brought together when Mair and her brother and sister find a beautiful shawl in their father’s chest of drawers when clearing his house after his death. Her siblings each take a piece of furniture by which to remember their parents but Mair opts for the shawl. Inspired both by its beauty and the lock of hair tucked into a small envelope amongst its folds, she decides to go to India to track down the story behind this beautiful item. It seems unlikely that her stolid and dour Grandfather Evan would ever have bought something so frivolous. She wonders what could have brought something so exquisite into her Grandmother’s keeping.
In 1941 Nerys and Evan went to India as missionaries and were posted to Leh, the capital of the remote Himalayan region of Ladakh, a place so remote that it took weeks on horseback just to get there and once the snows came the area would be cut off from the rest of the country when the passes were blocked. When a young British couple Myrtle and Archie McMinn have nowhere to stay after a hunting trip, Evan and Nerys put them up as their guests. When it’s clear that the snows are coming soon and they need to leave, Evan sends Nerys to Srinagar with her new friends, opting to stay and ‘test’ himself in the harsh Ladakhi winter and in the remote villages whilst sending her to the relative comfort of the city. Myrtle and Nerys become friends with Caroline, a young wife whose husband shows no interest in her and when Caroline gets pregnant after an affair with a local man, the three women hatch a plot to conceal Caroline’s shame from both the British community and Caroline’s lover.
Mair too makes a journey to Srinagar with a couple – American Buddhist Karen, her Swiss born husband Bruno and their young daughter. After learning from a shop-keeper in Leh that the shawl is Kashmiri, she wants to follow it to the place where it was made so many years before. She knows it’s a good quality piece because all the shopkeepers want to know if she’s interested in selling it, but she’s looking for answers, not money. The parallels between the two women journeying to Srinagar seem clear at this stage but we’re being led astray because none of Mair’s companions will complete the journey with her. Mair finds a room on a houseboat, decaying and neglected and a far cry from the one her grandmother shared with Myrtle and Caroline. She continues her pursuit of the source of the shawl, travelling to small villages in search of its makers.
“The Kashmir Shawl really does have everything I needed in a good novel.”
Nerys becomes friends with a Swiss mountaineer and magician Rainer Stamm who soon becomes the fourth member of the ‘team’ helping to conceal Caroline’s pregnancy, to arrange to hide her away for her delivery and then to put in place arrangements for the child’s safety. Rainer is an expert at concealment, diversion and other magicians’ tricks to fool the observer. It’s war-time and nobody’s entirely sure who he is or for whom he’s working officially or even who he actually is but unofficially he’s a valuable part of Nerys, Caroline and Myrtle’s ‘team’. The child’s father must never know about her existence and even though the women think she’s safely hidden away, the dangers continue. Her Indian father is hunting her down in much the way that Mair is hunting the story many years later but with very different intent. Eventually the only way to save the child is to send her away – with startling results that will keep you guessing right to the end.
As we read Nerys’s story and peel away the layers of secrecy, her granddaughter is doing the same but without the benefit that we as readers have. We’re following Mair’s pursuit of the story but we’re a few steps ahead of her most of the way. We watch as she narrows down the location where the shawl was made, finds people who can help her with Nerys’s story, and eventually we reach the final chapters where everything ‘more or less’ knits together and the mysteries are all tied up.
I’ve been to Leh and I recognised the descriptions from the stories of both women. I’ve not yet been to Srinagar due to the security situation but The Kashmir Shawl took me there in my mind. I had no trouble to picture the lake, the boathouses, the men ferrying the characters across the water or the events taking place in both past and present. I’m a great lover of Indian shawls and no trip to India will pass without me spending a good few hours on the floor of a shop, inevitably run by a Kashmiri shopkeeper regardless of where I am, and talking over the hundreds of patterns and qualities of shawls spread all around me. I’ve progressed up the qualities and now I only buy the best types – the same sort of shawl around which this story rotates. I enjoyed Rosie Thomas’ descriptions of going to see the goats, watching the women sorting the wool, and then seeing them weaving slowly and carefully over many months. I could relate to the characters being able to identify not just the village of origin of the shawl but also the individual weaver that made it, entranced by the value of such items to both their makers and those who buy them. If ever a novel were designed to be right up my street, this must be the one.
If a good novel needs three things, I would say they are people, place and plot. The characters in The Kashmir Shawl worked for me. I found each believable, likeable (where appropriate) and understandable – even the ‘baddies’ that any such story needs to give it colour. The place was a winner – but I expected that from other books I’ve read by Rosie Thomas. She writes ‘place’ beautifully – I was so excited by her book ‘Iris and Ruby’ which was set in Cairo that I longed to jump on a plane and fly straight to Egypt and within days of getting this book I was looking at the Foreign and Commonwealth office site to check whether or not it was safe to go to Kashmir. And finally the plot has plenty of twists and turns, signposts you can follow and false leads that will take you nowhere, parallels between the stories of the two women and places where their journeys diverge completely. And when you finally reach the end after 500 pages, there’s the satisfaction of the big questions being answered and a few new ones thrown in to leave you wondering if you really understood it at all. The Kashmir Shawl really does have everything I needed in a good novel.
The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas
Published by Harper, paperback March 2012
Thanks to the publisher for a review copy provided.
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