A prize-winning novel that is an adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone, set in the present day? Already chosen by my reading group as our August book? There was no reason not to get stuck into this one.
Summary of Home Fire (no spoilers)
The story follows the misfortunes of one Pakistani-origin family living in West London. The children are orphans. Father was rarely there, a fighter for the so-called Muslim causes, who died somewhere between Bagram and Guantanamo. Mother died suddenly leaving Isma to bring up the twins Aneeka and Parvaiz with the help of local families, especially Aunty Naseem. The action takes place about 3 or 4 years ago against this background.
We meet Isma as she is about to board a plane for Boston where she plans to take up her doctoral studies again. The twins have grown up and she can leave them in the care of others. The usual airport irritations of the security checks are much greater for her, both at Heathrow and also when she lands. She is a Muslim and must be closely questioned. Knowing this, she has arrived extra early and rehearsed answers to possible questions with her sister. The family have a secret that must not be divulged. Parvaiz has left the UK to join ISIS. Both sisters miss their brother badly and would like to make contact with him, find out if he is okay.
In Amherst she meets Eamonn another young British citizen from a Pakistani family. His father, Karamat (Lone) Wolf, has just been made Home Secretary. Karamat is a man of high political ambitions, but known to Isma’s family as Shameless. He favours Muslims who adapt to British life, not those who object to how they are treated.
Eamonn goes to London and takes up with Isma’s sister Aneeka. It is not clear whether she has hidden motives for getting involved with him, the reader suspects that she has, but he is quickly smitten.
The action shifts to Parvaiz. We learn of his recruitment, his training and employment in the media branch of ISIS, and how he now wants to return to London. This is, of course, the crux of the action of the novel. The Home Secretary has just announced that those who have left to join the militants will have their British citizenship revoked. And now, his own family is involved with such a young man.
As the plot moves to its conclusion, both families – the Home Secretary’s as well as Isma’s – are put under severe pressure.
The idea of using a modern-day Antigone to explore some very ancient and difficult themes works well. Kamila Shamsie does not confine herself to the original story, but makes enough use of it to enrich the telling of this thriller. The theme of conflict between family and civic duty is central. Those who try to legislate for civic over familial duty are culpable. We must also understand the pull of the family, and the questions of identity in our multifaceted world.
The novel questions easy solutions. It will not allow us, or any of the characters, to get away with ideas about British values being the answer, and continually asks what is identity, what matters to one’s sense of self, and the role of family and country in this. These concepts have never been straight forward, and today they are as complex and insoluble as ever.
I have two reservations. First, it is not possible for anyone to be in ignorance of the atrocities committed in the name of ISIS. Nor of the possible consequences of betraying your country by joining them or of betraying them. [I write this as the current Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announces the suspension of the policy of demanding that British Citizens do not face capital punishment.] But for the plot to work the reader must have some sympathy for Parvaiz and believe that he is motivated by his wish to find the truth about his father and that he is susceptible to the recruitment process.
Second, fictitious presentation of prominent political figures is very hard to do. This may be because our perceptions of them are built gradually through innumerable press exposures, not presented as thought-through characters in a novel. I think of the Blair character in The Ghost by Richard Harris (2007), and the Prime Minister in The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987). Both characters are problematic because they do not accord with our own picture of these people. The complexity of a political figure’s motivations and actions seem to me to resist authenticity.
I will mention two other things which I thought were well done. Aneeka’s grief is overpowering and leads to the final horrifying scene.
But this was not grief. It did not cleave to her, it flayed her. It did not envelop her, it leaked into her pores and bloated her beyond recognition, She did not hear his footsteps or his laughter, she no longer knew how to hunch down and inhabit his posture, she couldn’t look in the mirror and see his eyes looking back at her.
This was not grief. It was rage. It was his rage, the boy who allowed himself every emotion but rage, so it was the unfamiliar part of him, that was all he was allowing her now, it was all she had left of him. She held it to her breast, she fed it, she stroked its mane, she whispered love to it under the starless sky, and sharpened her teeth on its gleaming paws. (193)
The other small detail is the way the press mangle the names of the protagonists. Their identity is fodder to the news mill.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017) Bloomsbury 264pp
Long listed for Man Booker in 2017 and winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.
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