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The Kashmir Shawl - Rosie Thomas

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Author: Rosie Thomas / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 01 March 2012 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers / Title: The Kashmir Shawl / ISBN 13: 9780007285976 / ISBN 10: 0007285976 / Alternative EAN: 9780007285969

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      08.05.2012 18:15
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      Rosie Thomas really gets under the skin of Himalayan India in this great novel

      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 set in fabulous places 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. Thanks are due to both the publishers and curiousbookfans (where the original version of this review was posted).

      ~Like Grandmother, Like Grandaughter?~

      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, her brother and her 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 try 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.

      ~Parallel Journeys~

      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. Arriving in Srinagar, 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.

      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.

      ~This book delivered exactly what I wanted and expected~

      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.

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        29.04.2012 13:35
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        A wonderful story of a grandchild learning about her grandmother's life through a shawl

        The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas
        ISBN 9780007285976

        WHY THIS BOOK?
        I had never heard of this author prior to being handed this book by mu friend who was having a book clear out. I have to admit that the front cover didn't grab me as the colours are a bit wishy washy and the whole effect was soppy and chicklit. Looking at it more closely it is actually a painting of the lake in Kashmir so quite appropriate for the book but it just didn't really do much to inspire my interest. I had seen it in Tesco and even though the book title had Kashmir in it somehow it just gave out vibes of Maeve Binchy and Rosamunde Pilcher and while I am quite happy to read their books while on holiday if I get them free they are not usually the sort of books I spend money on. Anyway having been handed this free I read the blurb on the back and was quite inspired to read it especially as my friend had said she had enjoyed it.

        THE BLURB

        This tells me that the book is set in India and in two time periods, the first is during the time of the Ra j and pre Independence and the second story is in present day. It reminded me a bit of 'Heat and Dust' by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala which I reviewed some time back. The style of writing is not the same but the fact that a granddaughter goes back to India to find out about her grandmother and the way the story flicks back and forth between the two parallel stories.

        THE STORY
        One story is that of Nerys Watkins who marries a young rather intense missionary and travels to India with him. The time is just before independence and the couple have to travel by mule high up into the mountains of Kashmir to do their work. Nerys it seems is a lot tougher and more capable than her all too pious and serious husband. She copes far better with the journey than he does and she begins to work by setting up a school for the children as she really isn't that religious but being a good wife feels she has to support her husband. Things appear to be a little tense between them and as the story unfolds we follow Nerys of her many adventures and the husband appears mainly in his correspondence with her.

        The second story begins when the three grandchildren of Nerys are clearing their parents' house in Wales. They find a beautiful shawl which they know belonged to grandmother Nerys. As they take souvenirs from the house Mair, the youngest and the black sheep of the family asks if she can have the shawl as she has no need for furniture or anything else.

        Mair was different from her more conventional brother and sister, she had run away to join a circus as a protest against convention, she was not married and was still searching for her destiny. She decided that she would use her share of the house sale to go to India, travel and at the same time try to find out a bit more about her grandmother and why she had this exquisite shawl when Mair knew that as a missionary wife there was no way they could have afforded to buy it.

        THE CHARACTERS
        I found the characters in both parts of the story to be well created and believable. I actually enjoyed the grandmother's story and the characters in that to be more interesting and of course it was a time of big change and in India at the time the characters were larger than life and often a bit eccentric.

        I loved the character of Rainer, a Swiss mountain climber and magician and the friends of Nerys, Caroline and Myrtle as they had so much energy and life. All of them went against the colonial conventional set and were really before their time. They had a wonderful life at times but also all suffered huge tragedy which major life changes for each and every one. What I liked was that they all had faults and foibles but they also had warm hearts and went out of their way to help each other and indeed others in India at the time.

        The problems they had to deal with were very real and life threatening at times so we went from Garden Parties through to men returning from war with terrible injuries and these characters lived through all manner of changes in between.

        The modern characters we got to know rather less but Mair met up with a family and travelled with them down through the mountains. They got stranded by heavy snow and ended up staying in pretty basic accommodation for a few days. Once again tragedy struck during this story but I won't give this away.
        In the modern story Mair actually gets to meet one of her grandmother's friends and this is how she pieces together her grandmother's story.

        THE SETTING
        This was beautifully done by the author. She really captured the feel of the places where the characters travelled. I could picture the tiny mission house up in the mountains and the village where few colonial people lived cut off for months each year. The description of their journey on the mules was so real that I feel Rosie Thomas must has experience some sort of similar journey herself.

        On their way back from three years in Malaysia my parents came through India with my two youngest sister ( I was at college then!) and they had a houseboat on the Dahl Lake in Kashmir for a few days. I remember Mum's description of the lake and the houseboat ( this was in 1973) and Rosie Thomas's descriptions just fit perfectly.

        I also remember my Mum telling me that in winter it got so cold that the ladies carried pots of charcoal under their coats and that many ended up with skin cancers on the outside of their stomach from this. Again descriptions of even the colonial ladies doing just that made me think of Mum's sad story how poor the people of Kashmir were when they visited, things don't seem to have changed much over the last fifty or sixty years for these people it seems.

        India is such a magical and fascinating place but also a place of extreme poverty and tragedy is a part of everyday life. Rosie Thomas manages to capture this as well, she describes scenes with such accuracy such as when Nerys gets lost in some dark and dingy back streets and how scared she is when she is surrounded by a mass of begging children grabbing at her. I know how she felt as I hate it when I have to fight my way through a mass of begging children, I feel so torn as I would love to take them and buy them some food but begging is such a way of life and really they should be being encouraged to work rather than beg. In Cambodia they ask you not to give to beggars but it is hard.

        I think even if you have never been to India you would get a very good feel for the northern oart around Kashmir from this book. Sadly it might be the closest most of ever get unless the political situation up there is sorted.

        WHAT I THOUGHT
        Well I have said how impressed I was with the setting descriptions and how real the characters were. The stories came together in a very clever way. It was a sort of mystery but also had elements of romance and so many more twists and turns that it really kept me hooked from page one.

        I love books set in places where I have been or have some connection with. Having been brought up in a colonial family travelling since i was born stories like this really do appeal to me. My grandfather was in Singapore and that is where my father was born way back in 1926 so I have grown up on stories of their life there which is captured so well in 'Tanamera' by Noel Barber but also has echoes of the life of Nerys and her husband despite the fact they were quite low down in social status being missionaries.

        This was a real escape into a book sort of story with lots of sub plots and twists and turns, a mix of emotions and I really couldn't wait to get back to see what was going to happen next. There were times when I was almost moved to tears and certainly felt a lump in my throat and other times when I smiled with interest at things that the characters experienced. These included Mair visiting a bunch of very smelly goats to see the beginning of the shawl's creation and the description of the colonial dances and the social pecking order and so on.

        WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
        'A superbly researched and vivid evocation of wartime Kashmir and Ladakh' -Daily Mail
        'Rosie Thomas writes with beautiful, effortless prose, and shows a rare compassion and a real understanding of the nature of love.' - The Times

        This is well worth a read as it is a cracking good story beautifully told and all the more interesting because of the setting for me.

        Thanks for reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.
        ©Catsholiday

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          15.04.2012 18:17

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          What a great read, it truly evoked the atmosphere and astounding beauty of Kashmir on the eve of war

          I have just returned from my holidays having read "The Kashmir shawl", what a delightful read. The book follows two storyline threads, one from the present day and one from the past, both stories beautifully entwining and finally joining together at the end of the novel. At the stories centre is a beautiful Kashmir shawl and a story that unfolds deliciously as to where it came from.

          The present day finds Mair Ellis taking a trip to Indian to find out the history of the shawl and how her Grandmother had come to possess such a beautiful thing. Rosie Thomas does characterisation fabulously well and introduces us to some intriguing people along the way.

          Narrated as a background story we hear about the life of Nerys Watkins, a missionary's wife who finds herself high up in the mountains of Kashmir, where the British community live on wooden Houseboats. Nerys becomes involved in an interwoven tale of love and shame and the misfortunes of a small child.

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