Longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie has been causing quite a stir since its release earlier this year. And indeed, how could it not, given its contemporary relevance? The novel is a retelling of Sophocles’ 441BCE play Antigone which sees a young woman defying her uncle, the King of Thebes, in order to ensure that her brother’s body is given an appropriate burial. Far removed from ancient Greece, Home Fire follows a Muslim family in Massachusetts and London, briefly featuring Syria, Istanbul and Pakistan. Shamsie pays tribute to the inspiration text by giving her characters names that begin with the same letter as those in the play, but beyond this, she is happy to take artistic licence to craft a compelling and deeply necessary novel about family, love, politics and religion.
Told over a matter of months, the novel is broken up into five parts, each from the point of view of one of the central characters. It opens with Isma Pasha as she is interrogated in Heathrow Airport. She’s on her way to the US where she’ll be undertaking a PhD – a dream that she had to put on hold to look after her younger siblings, Aneeka and Pavaiz, after the deaths of their mother and grandmother. The interrogation is not merely because Isma is a hijab-wearing Muslim, but because her father was a Jihadi who died in Guantanamo and her brother has recently disappeared to Syria. In Massachusetts, Isma meets Eamonn at a coffee shop and a sweet, though somewhat confused friendship develops between them. Isma is calm, compassionate and warm. She is full of clever observations, like ‘For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition,’ and ‘The 7/7 terrorists were never described by the media as ‘British terrorists.’ Even when the word ‘British’ was used, it was always ‘British of Pakistani descent’ or ‘British Muslim’ or, my favourite, ‘British passport holders,’ always something interposed between their Britishness and terrorism.’ There’s an understated strength, a beautiful resilience about her and I missed her voice in the remaining four parts.
Eamonn, son of the British Home Secretary, comes next. Despite his heritage, he’s not Muslim, a fact put in clear relief when he asks Isma about a turban she is wearing. ‘Is that a style thing or a Muslim thing?’ he wants to know. When Eamonn returns to the UK, he very quickly finds Isma’s younger sister, Aneeka, a woman who he’d seen in a photo of and who he had thought beautiful. Eamonn’s a rich play boy with a bit too much time on his hands and his desire for Aneeka is borderline disturbing. For me, this was a moment in which Home Fire tripped up, failing to acknowledge the strangeness of such behaviour, the almost predatory nature of his finding her and the shallowness of his desire. Nevertheless, Eamonn’s feelings for Aneeka are fleshed out in moments of honeyed intimacy and it is immensely refreshing and oddly endearing to read about contemporary men falling in love with such earnestness. His struggle to compete with Aneeka’s other life is marked by Shamsie’s refusal to allow him to give into the petty jealousies and insecurities that men in fiction are so often lionised for acting on.
His biggest rival for Aneeka’s affections is her twin. At nineteen, Pavaiz is directionless, working at a greengrocer and aspiring to be a sound engineer. Since his twin started studying law and spending less time at home, Pavaiz has more time on his hands and spends it in troubling company. His radicalisation is a little implausible – brought on by the changes occurring within his family (which he sees as somehow traitorous) and a new friend, Farooq, who suddenly appears in Pavaiz’s life bringing heroic tales of the teenager’s Jihadi father. Soon Pavaiz is on the way to Syria to work for the media arm of ISIS and while his radicalisation seems a bit too quick, a bit too cliché, his sisters’ reactions are quite real.
While Isma has remained calm throughout, Aneeka is tortured. Her portion of the novel rejects the conventional narrative format and is filled with short, fragmentary chapters, newspaper articles, poetry, hashtags and tweets. The writing here is urgent and intense, Aneeka herself seeming to unravel along with it. ‘[G]rief was bad-tempered, grief was kind; grief saw nothing but itself, grief saw every speck of pain in the world; grief spread its wings large like an eagle, grief huddled small like a porcupine; grief needed company, grief craved solitude; grief wanted to remember, wanted to forget; grief raged, grief whimpered…’ Her feelings for her brother are at the forefront, her relationship with Eamonn somewhat falling by the wayside, leaving readers uncertain of how much of it was genuine and how much calculated. Indeed, some might believe that her relationship was exactly as calculated as she confessed, ‘I wanted Eamonn to want to do anything for me before I asked him to do something for my brother. Why shouldn’t I admit it? What would you stop at to help the people you love most?’ Theirs is a complex love story with no clear lines, no certainties.
Finally, the last part is written from the perspective of Karamat Lone, Eamonn’s father and the new Home Secretary. Despite being born Muslim himself, Lone has intentionally ostracised himself from the Muslim community and struggles to distance himself from that world, even when his son becomes embroiled in it. Regardless of his politics, Lone is a compelling character – easy to understand, easy to commiserate with. His views are the views of our politicians, and our more educated neighbours. He is not cruel; he is ‘firm’. It is from his position of intellectual remove that readers view the novel’s stunning and tragic climax in what is easily on of the most memorable, beautiful and heart-breaking final scenes I have read in a long time.
Shamsie writes elegantly and evocatively, balancing the intersection of society, family and religion in a way that is thought-provoking but never didactic. Her depiction of contemporary Islam is incredibly powerful and she is unafraid to write frankly about sex and prayer, God and alcohol. The result is a nuanced portrayal of Islam, one that Western audiences are rarely treated to.
Much of this closing action is seen through screens – the way people in the real world engage with terrorism – and this is part of Shamsie’s genius. Home Fire is the Pakistani-raised, London-based writer’s seventh novel and the skill and refinement of technique developed in the previous six is obvious. Shamsie builds tension expertly and demands sympathy for each of her characters without ever seeming to. As a reader, your investment is guaranteed – the novel is simply too hard to put down.