It begins in pre-World War I Turkey, where young Vivian Rose Spencer is on an archaeological dig. She is entranced by the thought of the history of artifacts, particularly by a story told her by Tahsin Bey, a friend of her father. He tells her of a circlet worn by the 5th century explorer Scylax, which he believes may be found in Peshawar, where the Persian King Darius sent him to explore the Indus. Viv’s visit is cut short by the start of the war, but by then she has promised herself to Tahsin Bey, who says he will fetch her in London after the war.
Viv begins the war nursing, but after a while she is unable to take the stress. Her mother agrees to allow her to journey to Peshawar as an archaeologist, but first she is drawn by patriotism and naiveté into a betrayal.
Qayyam Gul is a proud Pushtun soldier whose regiment is practically wiped out at Auber’s Ridge. He loses an eye, but it is his experience of being an Indian soldier in England that makes him begin rethinking his loyalties.
In Peshawar, Viv befriends a young Pathan boy, Najeeb, who becomes fascinated by the objects in the museum. She begins giving him lessons in the classics, but when his mother finds out, she makes him stop. Najeeb is Qayyam’s brother, and Qayyam accompanies Najeeb to Viv’s house to return her books. Not much later, Viv is forced to return to London.
Fourteen years later, Viv is enticed back to Peshawar by Najeeb’s letters. He is now employed by the Peshawar Museum and wants her to excavate the site that she hoped to explore years before. Qayyam has in the meantime become involved in the Congress, which wants to separate India from England. Viv arrives, but after violence has already begun.
Although I was interested in the characters and wanted to know what happened to them, I felt that Shamsie presents us with threads of different stories, all unexplored. We don’t learn very much about Qayyam’s experience at Auber’s Ridge or Viv’s nursing experiences, for example, or what’s going on in the Congress. We never find out what happened to Scylax’s circlet. It is almost a McGuffin. The best parts of the novel are her depictions of Peshawar. But even there, the readers’ experience seems fragmentary. In a dramatic portion of the end of the novel, a girl is introduced as an apparent partner for Najeeb, only to be killed within a few pages. The author’s intentions seem confused, as if she started with too many stories to tell and couldn’t decide between them.