Book Review: The Kashmir Shawl


Synopsis: It is the eve of 1941 and World War II is engulfing the globe.  Newlywed Nerys Watkins leaves rural Britain to accompany her husband on a missionary posting to India, but when he leaves her in the exotic lakeside city of Srinagar to take on a complicated mission elsewhere, she discovers a new world.  Here, in the heart of Kashmir, the British dance, flirt, and gossip against the backdrop of war and Nerys soon becomes caught up in a dangerous liaison.  By the time she is reunited with her husband, she is a very different woman. 

Years later, Nerys’s granddaughter Mair Ellis clears out her dead father’s house and finds and exquisit shawl – a kaleidoscope of slivery blues and greens.  Wrapped in the folds of this delicate object is a lock of a child’s curly hair.  With nothing else to go on, Mair decies to trace her grandparents’ roots back to Kashmir, embarking on a quest that will change her own life forever.  


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 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 Srinagar, 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.  Srinagar, 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- Source Reading the Past

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