An intricately woven shawl is both memento and metaphor in Thomas’ meditative transgenerational tale.
In Wales, after the death of her father, Mair finds among his effects a finely crafted multicolored pashmina shawl, which her grandmother Nerys, who died before Mair’s birth, acquired during her days as a Presbyterian missionary in Kashmir. The origins of the shawl and the lock of hair folded in it must hold the key to Nerys’ veiled past, Mair assumes, and so she journeys to the Kashmiri town of Srinagar where Nerys lived during World War II. The story alternates between Mair’s present travels and Nerys’ Srinigar sojourn. Nerys’ straight-laced husband, Evan, is away preaching, and Nerys awaits his return in a houseboat owned by fellow British expats, Myrtle and Archie. Nerys and Myrtle are drawn into the dilemma of a young Englishwoman, Caroline, whose marriage is celibate due to her husband’s closeted homosexuality. Caroline has had a forbidden affair with Ravi, an Indian nobleman, and is pregnant. Myrtle finds an ingenious way to hide the pregnancy from the insular, scandal-attuned European community, and from Ravi. Nerys, also love-starved thanks to Evan’s prudery, has a joyfully adulterous affair with a Swiss mountaineer and magician, Rainer, who helps her rescue the children of a dishonored and destitute woman who made a Kani shawl very like the one Mair found. (The prosperous but labor-intensive cottage industry of Kani shawls began, before WWII, to lose out to factory-made imitations, impoverishing the true practitioners.) When Mair encounters nonagenarian Caroline in Srinigar, she is now very close to uncovering all the braided and colorful secrets the shawl represents. The atmospheric detail brings the culture and gorgeous scenery of Kashmir to vivid life while also hinting at the political and religious strife that will soon overcome the region as India gains its independence.
Although the narrative drags in spots, and Nair’s anticlimactic investigation is less compelling than Nerys’ adventures, this is a finely wrought story of emotional and geographical displacement.