Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

>> Friday, September 01, 2017

TITLE: Home Fire
AUTHOR: Kamila Shamsie

PAGES: 272
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother's death, she is finally studying in America, resuming a dream long deferred. But she can't stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London – or their brother, Parvaiz, who's disappeared in pursuit of his own dream: to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters' lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to – or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz's salvation? Two families' fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

A contemporary reimagining of Sophocles' Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide – confirming Kamila Shamsie as a master storyteller of our times.
More reading from the Man Booker longlist.

This is a novel with a message. It has points it wants to make. Too often, books for which this is the case end up being diatribes, or they end up being purely novels of ideas, with characters who feel like puppets, only there to make particular points or represent a particular viewpoint.

Home Fire is that rare beast where the message is just as strong as the story and the characters. The message is revealed through characters who feel real and act in ways that are well-motivated and understandable. They are human, people who may want to do the right thing, but often make decisions that are not so great, but for understandable reasons. And through their feelings and actions, the message shines through powerfully.

The book is also a retelling of a classical story, the myth of Antigone. The theme explored in Antigone is basically the conflict between the law of the land and natural law. What happens when our obligations to the state and our obligations to those we love clash? That's the background theme in Home Fire as well, but it's not quite what the book is about. That background theme is used to illustrate what the book is really about: what is it like to be British-Pakistani in today's Britain? We explore this through the eyes of several characters, all of whom bring a different perspective.

Isma is the older sister in the Pasha family. Their father was a jihadi who died on his way to Guantanamo when the children were very young (and this particular plot point made me feel quite old!). Isma and the twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz, grew up with only their mother, who died herself when the twins were still very young. Isma was in university at the time, and had to give up further education to raise her brother and sister. As the book starts, the twins are 19 and Isma feels they're old enough that she can go back to her own life and follow her dreams. She's been accepted to do a Master's degree in a university in the US.

While there, she befriends a young man called Eamonn. Eamonn happens to be the son of a well-known politician in the UK, Karamat Lone, who's also of Pakistani background (the name Eamonn does make sense: his mother is Irish, and the use of a non-Pakistani name for his son fits very well with Karamat's personality). Karamat has just been named Home Secretary (for American readers, this is sort of like being head of Homeland Security in the US, or Minister for the Interior, in the case of several other countries). This leads to Isma being a bit nervous about becoming friends with Eamonn, as there's not just the issue of her father, but that of her brother. You see, not long before Isma left, the family found out that Parvaiz had not travelled to Pakistan to visit family, but had crossed the border from Turkey into Syria to join Islamic State. And the story goes from there.

Isma is 'the good immigrant' (she's not an immigrant, she's British, but you know what I mean). With her it's all about conciliation and following the rules to show she's well-integrated, nothing to fear. When she's interrogated in Heathrow airport for such a long time that she misses her flight to the US, she's annoyed, but she still answers the questions straight, no matter how offensive. Her attitude is very much "Accept the law even when it is unjust.".

Aneeka is very different. She rebels against the injustices her sister accepts,and doesn't hesitate to let that be known. To her, the injustice in the ways she's treated for being a hijab-wearing Muslim is something to be resisted and fought against, even if that makes those around her uncomfortable.

Karamat is the immigrant whose strategy to be accepted and respected is to become more Catholic than the Pope. He renounces his background and, as Home Secretary,  he's tougher on those he sees as betraying Britain than many native-born people would be.

Eamonn, Karamat's son, was probably the least distinct character for me. He's the one who feels like he has integrated fully, and his Pakistani background means very little to him. He's part of Britain's elite, and he feels perfectly comfortable, if somewhat unsatisfied there.

And finally, Parvaiz. Parvaiz is the unmoored, a young man desperate for belonging, for a community where he's accepted, for a family. He's naive, and his desperation leads him to believe what he shouldn't have and end up in Raqqa, where all his illusions about what he's joining are quickly destroyed. He wants to come back home. But because of anti-terror laws passed by people like Karamat, he can't. For people like Parvaiz, a single mistake made as a teenager will destroy his life.

Or at least, that is what the narrative is telling us. I struggled with the character of Parvaiz. I don't think I had as much sympathy for him as I was supposed to have. Yes, I understood his motivations and bought that he'd acted out of idealism and naivete. Shamsie's portrayal of the grooming process rang true, and I could believe that even a good young man in Parvaiz's situation would have been vulnerable. His groomers use the void that exists where his father should have been. I also found interesting that they paint a very idealistic picture of what life in the caliphate is, and they do this by using exactly the sorts of arguments a that would appeal to a young man whose previous political activities have been limited to campaigns to save the local library. "Look at all those cuts here, the Tories are destroying the wonderful welfare state that was this country, wouldn't you love to live somewhere where this is done properly?" Of course they wouldn't emphasise the barbarity, the religious oppression, to someone like Parvaiz.

And yet! All that being said, I couldn't quite travel all the way to the idea that his mistake should be forgiven and he should be able to come back, as I suspect I might have been meant to. It's not so much a matter of the fact that he's associated himself with agents who oppose what's supposed to be his own country, betrayed Britain, so to speak, but the fact of the brutality and barbarity of IS. That is just too much. And I kept thinking 'He should have known. At every point when I felt sympathy for him, my brain just went to the accounts of Yazidi women who have been captured by IS and forced to become sex slaves. And my brain would go 'Nope'. Just no.

At the same time, I suspect I sympathised with Karamat more than I was meant to. I think I may have been supposed to consider him an egotistic monster, who only cares about power and doesn't care about who he destroys to get it. I didn't. I thought he was a man who was genuinely trying to get the best outcome for British Muslims, only with a very dogmatic idea of what the best way to accomplish acceptance as an integral part of Britain is. He's taken a particular approach, and thinks it's the one everyone should take. Those are not the actions of a monster, but of an arrogant man. He is trying to do the right things, it's just that his values were not quite the same as mine.

The wonder of Home Fire, though, is that this did not affect my enjoyment of the book one jot. I didn't need to agree with a particular viewpoint to feel the power of the story. Even not agreeing with Aneeka that it was an absolute injustice that her brother should not be able to return home to her, her plight still resonated. Even if my own view was a little bit closer to Karamat's than the narrative assumed, the plot worked. The book made me think and made me feel in ways that very few books achieve, and it felt profoundly satisfying.

Before I close, a quick note on the Antigone connection. I knew when I started that this was supposed to be a retelling of that story, so I had a very good idea of the basics of where the plot was going and what the conflict would be. I read Jean Anhouil's WWII-set version of the story for my French class when I was in secondary school, and that was seared in my mind. I think this might be even better. The motivations felt even more understandable, and the story didn't feel derivative. Shamsie takes the themes and basic setup from the Antigone story, but does not feel beholden to follow them exactly. She eliminates the character of one of Antigone and Ismene's brothers, and thus changes slightly the nature of the crime the other brother has committed and is being punished for. She also creates a father for Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz whose backstory is key to Home Fire, but has very little relationship to that of OEdipus. And most of all, she does her own thing with the ending, which makes much more sense and is possibly more powerful with the changes Shamsie makes. It's wonderfully done.

This one shoots up straight to the top of my favourites of all the ones I've read from the longlist so far, and I'd be shocked (and delighted) if I like any others as much.



Janine Ballard 2 September 2017 at 00:26  

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book. I remember loving Antigone in high school, though we read only the Sophocles version. Can you say more about the qualities that made you love this book, though? I would love to hear about that in more detail.

Rosario 2 September 2017 at 07:59  

Hah, I guess I was so concentrated on describing what the book was like that I neglected to explain just why I loved it so much! I think it was because it was a book I felt told me something new about the world we live in today, and it did it with characters I felt were real and that cared about deeply. Even though I knew the shape of what was going to happen, I read the whole book (and particularly the last half) with my heart in my throat. The whole experience felt cathartic and very powerful, and it's been a while since a book has made me feel that way. Hope this makes it clearer why I loved it!

Janine Ballard 2 September 2017 at 08:44  

Yes, it absolutely does. Thanks!

Liz Mc2 2 September 2017 at 21:16  

I loved this as well, for the reasons you say--it has a message/political themes but the characters never feel like puppets designed to carry the message, but like people. Shamsie builds the tension so well, I was utterly gripped. I do think that she pulled her punches with Parvaiz'actions in a way that made him more sympathetic, but I liked this enough not to care.

I would have a hard time choosing between this and Autumn, which have such different virtues (and both are about "Britain today" in a way) but they are definitely my top two with 4 to go. I think Reservoir 13 is the only one I have left that might join their ranks, but I could be surprised.

Rosario 3 September 2017 at 09:42  

Liz: Agreed on the pulled punches -just left a comment about that point on your review. And yes, like you, it made no difference to how much I liked this!

I'm reading Reservoir 13 right now, and so far so good. It feels like it is about Britain as well, only not quite "Britain today", but more the "timeless Britain". Autumn... still lots of thinking to do on that one to articulate just why it didn't really work for me.

Anonymous,  3 September 2017 at 21:34  

I finally stopped peeping through my fingers and read your review. I'm in the middle of listening to a performed version of the Anouilh, prior to reading the novel. I'm very curious to see how Pervaiz's transformation is handled. I've done research and written on recruits to IS, primarily from the US but also from Europe, looking at them in terms of the push and pull factors rather than individual psychology, and I might buy Pervaiz's willful ignorance about IS more than you did. Or maybe not. But now I'm even more interested in reading this!

This year's longlist is making me want to teach a course on how politics and policy around immigration, identity, and citizenship are portrayed in contemporary fiction. I wonder if I could get away with it ...

Rosario 4 September 2017 at 07:52  

Sunita, I can't wait to see what you think of this one, and particularly of that aspect! Shamsie has said she got a lot of help on that from her friend Gillian Slovo, who at the same time Shamsie was writing Home Fire, was writing/researching a verbatim play based on conversations with the families of young people who went to join IS. That one actually sounds fascinating as well, and I'm trying to find a performed version to listen to.

That topic sounds fascinating as a course. Liz was saying she's tempted to use this one in her teaching as well. And all this talk makes me want to go back to university and do a course a bit less prosaic than economics...

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