Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel Home Fire is a retelling of Antigone, a classical play about family and state. I am often hesitant about this genre as the plots can easily feel forced and unnatural. However, Shamsie’s story is so deeply rooted in family tensions and political movements that the ancient plot works seamlessly within her work. A mix of strong characters and a political atmosphere worryingly in tune with today’s current affairs makes this book incredibly deserving of its place on the Man Booker Longlist 2017.
‘You were hope’, she said, simply. ‘The world was dark and then there you were, blazing with light. How can anyone fail to love hope?’ (p. 97)
Shamsie employs multiple narrators throughout the book, each one picking up where the last left off. The two families which become intertwined throughout the novel are both powerfully depicted with Shamsie’s use of these differing voices. We hear each world from their own perspective and thus a strong sense of how each life fits amongst the rest is built. The story starts with Isma, a sister finally freed from the parental role she has taken on and now able to continue her studies without the ties of family holding her back. The isolation and supposed independence which begins the novel quickly disintegrates as more of Isma’s past with her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, is revealed.
With Isma’s brother leaving Britain to join the so-called Islamic State, Shamsie illustrates how loyalties to family and state are conflicted both at home and abroad. Eamonn, son of the Home Secretary acts as a counter to the dangerous life being led by Parvaiz. Shamsie raises many questions about the place of Islam and other religions in modern British society. A British Muslim politician tells a predominantly Muslim audience in a school, ‘You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you’. Eamonn’s privileged secular background, Isma and Aneeka’s quiet dedication, and Parvaiz’s radical brainwashing each present very different approaches to religion and society today.
Home Fire is a modern day epic family saga, portraying both a tragic love affair and the ties that draw us back to our homes. I found the chapters telling us of a boy’s search for manhood through his journey to Syria particularly interesting. Shamsie reveals all the horrors of the Islamic State through a brother still connected to his sisters back in the UK. What begins as a familiar novel about relationships turns quickly into something exploring the deepest parts of humanity. Shamsie turns a classical drama into an epic for modern times.
Image: Katie Butler