Saturday, January 28, 2012

A look at Rosie Thomas's The Kashmir Shawl

Multi-period novels with parallel stories linked by family connections are among my favorite types of books.  While the parts set in an earlier time take me away from everyday concerns via unfamiliar settings and period-appropriate situations, the modern sections bring everything back home again, showing how people are more connected to history than they might have thought.

A transporting story that begins in present-day North Wales and wends through the remote towns of India's Kashmir Valley during World War II, Rosie Thomas's The Kashmir Shawl offers enjoyable armchair escapism. I got it as a Christmas present and decided to read it in between the chunksters I had for review.  Partway through I realized that, at 468 pages, it qualified as a chunkster as well.

Mair Ellis never knew her grandmother, Nerys Watkins, who died before she was born.  After the death of their beloved father, Mair and her siblings discover a gorgeously patterned shawl hidden in an old chest of drawers.  Made of the softest Indian wool, and full of wonderful colors and intricate detail, the shawl also conceals an envelope with a curl of dark brown hair that doesn't match anyone in their family.

This mystery proves an irresistible opportunity for Mair, who never knew much about her grandparents' time in India.  Evan Watkins had been sent there as a Presbyterian missionary in the early '40s, and Nerys had willingly followed him there. In the hopes of uncovering their hidden history, Mair travels to the town of Leh, high in northwestern India's Himalayas.  Her investigations into her grandmother's past and the shawl's origins eventually lead her to Srinigar, the summer capital of nearby Kashmir.

Mair and Nerys, whose journeys are revealed in alternating timelines, are independent, courageous, and also lonelier than they'd like to admit.  Romantic, yet tempered with a good amount of realism, The Kashmir Shawl takes an honest look at many different aspects of love.  This may sound trite, but one of the most impressive aspects of the novel is how its unstereotypical characters react to what's expected of them.  While I never really warmed to Mair, I especially liked Nerys, who's left to fend for herself while her husband is off doing his godly work (and neither minds their separation as much as they should).  She manages to balance her role as a proper clergyman's wife with a streak of unconventionality.  Not all of her women friends fare as well.

And as you can imagine, this is one of those epics where geography has a strong and vital presence.  Srinigar, home to Dal Lake and its elaborate wooden houseboats, offers both beauty and conflict.  In the 1940s, women of the British expatriate community hold social gatherings while their men are off at war, while the calm atmosphere of the modern-day town, as seen from Mair's viewpoint, is occasionally engulfed by Muslim-Hindu violence. 

Long-held traditions endure as well.  In this age of mass production, it can be hard to fathom the years of effort that the novel's Kashmiri villagers pour into the weaving of a single shawl, but as Mair and Nerys discover, the end result is exquisite.

How the Kashmir shawl came to be in Nerys' possession isn't revealed until the book is nearly over, and it requires the introduction of a good many new characters, but the plot doesn't feel needlessly drawn out.  I won't give more away than that, because getting there is an engrossing experience, and all of the strands pull together well at the end.

The Kashmir Shawl was published by HarperCollins UK in 2011 at £12.99 in trade paperback.


  1. This sounds a bit like The Sandalwood Tree?

    From your review, I know that I would love this book - I've just reserved it at the library :)

  2. This sounds like it is right up my alley of book. Going on my TBR list as we speak. Thanks for you review


  3. Hi Sam, yes, I think the two novels have similar appeal - the dual timelines, Indian setting, uncovering of mysteries from the past...

    In this case I found the earlier story held my interest a little more, although the present-day one has some hard-hitting moments that I won't quickly forget.

    Hi Cathy, that makes me glad I decided to write it up because I read it last weekend and didn't take notes - so coming up with a review took more time than usual :) Hope you like it if/when you get to it.

  4. Must read it! It's just my thing. Will go in my 'to read pile' at the top. Right now, am reading 'The Historian'.. ( i know.. i didn't read it then, though. :) ) and 'The Bronze Horseman'.. Both excellent.

  5. A friend of mine loaned this to me last week. I can't wait to read it. Great review.

  6. S'ok, Mary, I haven't read The Historian yet either! Or The Bronze Horseman, though friends have told me it's excellent. Just what I need, more chunksters to add to the 2012 TBR :)

    It's great that you've already come across this book, Linda. Geographic barriers (since it was only published in the UK) don't seem to be an issue at all.

  7. This sounds very interesting. I've always been a Walesophile, so the combination of that setting with India is intriguing. Thanks for the review!

  8. Hi Rosslyn, it does make for an intriguing mix of cultures. It starts off in Wales but moves on to India within about ten pages - then returns to Wales much later. That said, the characters bring the ways of their home country with them (some more than others). The novel also taught me how Mair was pronounced - almost like "Maya," said with a British (Welsh) accent. (Corrections by UK residents welcome!)

  9. I have looked at this book a few times. I do like a good chunkster, especially with dual time lines and a connection to India.

    Maybe I should add it to my TBR! And yes, you really should read The Bronze Horseman!

  10. Anonymous6:51 PM

    Srinagar - isn't that the city on a lake with the big hotel boats? They were always going there to escape the summer heat in "The Jewel in the Crown".

    Sarah Other Librarian

  11. Yes, same place - the descriptions of the houseboats in the novel (many of the British expats live on them) sent me googling for what they looked like.

    Marg and Meg, the book does read quickly if you do decide to pick it up (unlike the chunkster I'm reading now!).

  12. Apropos of nothing, that is one gorgeous cover!

  13. Sorry, Lucy - your comment got caught as spam for some reason, but it's fixed now! The actual book is even nicer because it has a lace design in gold foil all across the bottom.