by Kamila Shamsie
Home Fire, the seventh novel by Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie, is at once the most topical and most ancient novel on 2017’s Man Booker longlist.
Its contemporaneity derives from a story set in the present day, whose drama is generated by a young man (Parvaiz Pasha) travelling from London to Raqqa to join Isis. Adding to the sense of the present, there are sibling relationships conducted on Skype and FaceTime, and a narrative that at one point moves forward through Twitter #trends.
Home Fire’s debt to the distant past is paid by borrowing liberally from Sophocles’ Antigone, whose potent brew of chance and mischance shapes Shamsie’s story. Her Antigone is Aneeka Pasha, a beautiful 19-year-old Londoner, who wears a hijab and prays devoutly, if not quite five times a day. Her fate is shaped by factors beyond her control. Firstly, her father, Adil, a “laughing, broad-shouldered man”, whose personal charm is undermined by his quenchless wanderlust that eventually compels him to join the jihad in Kashmir, Chechnya and Kosovo. Following 9/11, Adil transfers to the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, is arrested and brutalised in Bagram Prison and (so the family learns second-hand) dies while being transferred to Guantánamo in 2002.
The second character determining Aneeka’s life is Parvaiz, her beloved twin brother. As the novel starts, we know only that he is Aneeka’s soul mate and that he has vanished, but Shamsie’s hints encourage us to suspect the worst: that he has absconded to Syria and joined Isis as a sound engineer in their grisly propaganda department.
The first casualty of Parvaiz’s disappearance is Aneeka’s relationship with her older sister, Isma, who is studying for a PhD in the United States. Later it will distort her intense romance with Eamonn, who befriends Isma in Massachusetts and meets Aneeka when he delivers a parcel of confectionery to her home in north London. While the reader never doubts the strength and sincerity of Aneeka’s passion for Eammon, the initial reason she follows him to his upmarket flat in Notting Hill is to gain access to his father: Karamat Lone, a politician of “Muslim background” who defies the class system and inherent racism of his homeland to become home secretary. Aneeka wants Lone to use his influence and help Parvaiz return to Britain.
Shamsie’s Sophoclean map slowly reveals itself. Karamat Lone is Creon, the ruler of Thebes, who is tasked with deciding the burial of warring brothers Eteocles and Polynices, who killed one another at the climax of Oedipus Rex. Parvaiz is Polynices, the ill-fated son of ill-fated Oedipus and Jocasta, who is branded a traitor after uniting with the King of Argos to seize Thebes from his brother. Shamed publicly after his death, Polynices is defended only by his sister, Antigone, who argues devotedly that he should receive the proper burial rites.
Complicating her sibling duty is her love for Creon’s son, Haemon: Eamon, Home Fire’s rather watery, pampered playboy. This leaves Isma to play Ismene, Antigone’s more sensible and beautiful sister, and (presumably) Adil Pasha to play Oedipus, spreading disaster from beyond the grave.
Despite the vast expanse of history separating the two works, the tragedy for both writers is broadly similar. Sophocles and Shamsie generate considerable emotional traction by pitting matters of grave public import (for Shamsie, nationality, religion, home, the media, competing political affiliations) against intimate passions (love, family, friendship).
This disjunction between outer and inner worlds possibly explains why one of Home Fire’s defining themes is the vexed problem of privacy in modern life. “I’m driving at the fact that habits of secrecy are damaging things,” Isma is told by her academic supervisor, Hira Shah, who worries about her student’s interiority as well as her hijab.
Aneeka shares her sister’s attraction to the clandestine. “Let me be your secret,” she tells Eamon after their first encounter. “I don’t want other people interpreting us.” Aneeka, of course, has her own complicated reasons for keeping Eamon in the dark: falling in love makes it harder to ask that he intercedes with his father to free a known Isis combatant.
Aneeka’s special pleading is in vain; she cannot escape her family any more than Eamon can escape his. When he finally twigs who Aneeka actually is, his first thought is for the damage he will cause his father. It is to his credit, if not his benefit, that this is not his last thought on the matter.
Home Fire tries to navigate the convoluted path between public and private realms, to explore the connections between masculinity and jihadism, to examine the question of feminism and the hijab, and to interpret the intersection of parenthood, birthplace and national identity.
There are long passages of exposition in which telling the story replaces showing it. One can see this as a question of transferring literary forms. In her acknowledgements, Shamsie laments her decision not to match Sophocles’ theatrical drama with one of her own. On the upside, Sophocles explains away some of Shamsie’s more glaring coincidences: Isma and Eamonn meeting in the middle of Massachusetts, for example.
The occasional functionality of Shamsie’s prose might explain the bursts of near-purple melodrama that occasionally flood her generally transparent and readable writing. One unfortunate example bursts its banks during Isma’s seemingly unremarkable walk through an American forest: “The sky was a rich blue, the water surged like blood leaving a heart.” In these overwrought moments, one senses Shamsie mining the turbulent emotional lives of her cast while also nodding to Sophocles, where even the most banal event is shaded by overarching prophetic tragedy.
Home Fire is a novel in which spoiler alerts are unnecessary. We know what will happen to the central protagonists because it has already happened to their prototypes. Plus ça change, one could almost say, of a human condition in which bonds of family, religion, class and nationality are disrupted by romantic love.
What fleshes out these big ideas is Shamsie’s flair for drawing fully realised individuals who are at once appealing and infuriating, contradictory but convincing. Shamsie recounts her story in five acts, each narrated by a different character with their own take on events. We begin by following Isma’s turbulent path to the US through an obstreperous British customs, the reader not yet fully realising how her father and brother, in addition to the broader political climate, have made that path quite so fraught.
Shamsie concludes with Karamat Lone, whose unstable status at once inside and outside British mainstream culture remixes that of Isma. Shamsie is sympathetic to the vulnerability of his position, to the risks he takes to realise his ambition to be a “man assured of his own power”. But she is also alive to the hypocrisy and absurdity generated by his constant compromises. Out walking beside the Thames, he notices a “brown-skinned” jogger and identifies him as a potential threat, asking his security detail: “That one too Muslim for comfort?” To which his guard replies: “That one was Latino.”
These shifting perspectives serve deeper purposes. In terms of pure narrative excitement, they trap characters between competing loyalties. “I admit it,” Eamonn confesses near the end of the novel. “I’ve been […] caught between the two people I love most in the world: my father and my fiancée.” But this narrative relativity also encourages the reader to interrogate their own preconceptions, not to mention the shallow newspaper headlines Shamsie parodies on several occasions.
Viewed from one angle, Parvaiz is a terrorist colluding in the most heinous crimes against humanity. From another, he is a sad, friendless boy drifting through life and ripe for brainwashing by an Isis recruiter.
Home Fire is impressive and, in its final pages, deeply moving – a complex, heartbreaking meditation on the ties that bind, no matter how hard we struggle to be free. By turns deeply humane and provocative, Shamsie has reinforced her reputation as one of the world’s most arresting writers.