Kamila Shamsie’s seventh novel, Home Fire, was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and is on the shortlist for the Costa Book Award, which will be announced January 2, 2018. It is a very loose adaptation of Sophocles’ ancient Greek drama Antigone.
To me it is less a retelling and more of a modern commentary on the tragedies of our times, running from the societal — terrorism, racism, political ambition — to the personal — love, loyalty and familial duty.
In Sophocles’ play Antigone’s brother Polynices is forbidden a proper burial by their uncle, Creon the King of Thebes, since he is considered a traitor. Antigone is placed in the position of obeying the law or risking death to give her brother a proper burial. She and Haemon, to whom she was engaged, come to a tragic end because of her decision.
In Shamsie’s version we have two families, the Pashas and the Lones, living out a similar scenario in modern day London.
Tweny-eight-year-old Isme Pasha is the older sister of the 19-year old twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz, whom she raised after the deaths of their Pakistani-born parents. Their mostly absent father had been a Taliban jihadi who was tortured in Bagram Prison and died on the way to imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay.
Isme now wants to live her own life and has moved to Amherst, Massachusetts to begin work on a PhD in sociology. Aneeka, beautiful and smart, has just started law school but Parvaiz remains un-moored, vaguely dreaming of becoming a sound engineer, and drifting through life.
In Amherst Isme meets Eammon Lone, the bi-racial son of a Pakistani- born Conservative politician, Karamat Lone, who has just been named as Britain’s Home Secretary, in charge of immigration, citizenship, policing and prisons.
Lone is married to a wealthy white American-born businesswoman and is determined to be as tough on Muslim terrorism as possible to de-fang critics who object to a person of Pakistani origin in his position.
Eammon is in Amherst visiting his American grandparents and is generally clueless about his Muslim heritage. Isme covers her hair with a turban. “Is that a style thing or a Muslim thing?” Eammon asks. “You know,” Isme replies “the only two people in Massachusetts who have ever asked me about it both wanted to know if it’s a style thing or a chemo thing.”
When Eammon returns to London he meets Aneeka and is immediately smitten. They begin a passionate and somewhat kinky secret affair.
Parvaiz has recently become radicalized and suddenly left for Raqqa, Syria with the media wing of ISIS. He winds up working on propaganda films, including beheadings. He is contrite and wants to come home.
After their engagement Eammon learns that Aneeka began their affair hoping to use him to influence his father to allow Parvaiz to return home. When Parvaiz is killed trying to defect from ISIS Karamat retroactively revokes Parvaiz’s British citizenship and refuses his body’s burial in Britain.
This sets off Aneeka’s Antigone-like dilemma and Eammon’s Haemon-like soul searching.
Shamsie, who herself grew up in Pakistan and now lives in London, portrays the usual tribulations of Muslim’s living in the West, the suspicions, the airport detentions and what Aneeka calls GWM — Googling While Muslim. (“Don’t stand next to this guy, don’t follow this guy on Twitter, don’t download that Noam Chomsky book,” complains one of the Pasha’s cousins.
Isme herself mourns that British Muslims are never considered fully British : “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 favorite, ‘British passport holders,’ always something interposed between their Britishness and terrorism.”
Karamat’s tragedy is that he can’t see that no matter his wealth and position this ultimately applies to him as well.
The novel is told from the perspectives of Isme, Eammon, Parvaiz, Karamat and Aneeka. Oddly, although Isme has the smallest role in the book, she is the most rounded character.
Aneeka is harder to know. Her section is seen mostly through intermediaries as she enacts a media sensation on behalf of Parvaiz. She is seen through newspaper clippings, twitter feeds, television cameras and news reports. Even in her scenes with Eammon (seen from his perspective) she seems opaque.
Parvaiz too is a bit of a cypher, the stereotypical lost Muslim youth who is drawn to radical Islam.
The plotting and the pacing and Shamsie’s close attention to detail keep these shortcomings from harming the novel. It is very moving and has an emotional honesty throughout. She never trivializes or condescends to the Pasha family’s various notions of Islam, in the way Karamat continually does.
The naive Eamon off-handedly remarks to Isme early on, “It must be difficult to be Muslim in the world these days.” She calmly replies “I’d find it more difficult not to be Muslim.” Home Fire is a dramatic, at times melodramatic, family story, but it is told with compassion and respect.
Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie, Riverhead Books