Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire partly reminded me of British writer Robert Harris’s popular political thrillers such as The Ghost or Archangel, where a sort of parallel contemporary world is envisaged, which is not quite what we know, but with a sideways glance, could well be. Of course Home Fire is darker and more substantial―escapism is not the priority―from the dramatic opening we are embedded in a particularly complex milieu, that of contemporary Muslim Britain, which is shown as fraught and pressured, and which our author knows from the inside.
The novel is promoted as a modern re-casting of Sophocles Antigone, so already, if one has the slightest knowledge of classical Greek drama, a major plot event is signalled. Why has she done this, I wondered? Well, Antigone presents a strong woman’s voice in a violent patriarchal society, tradition bound. But more subtly, by linking a modern Islamic drama to one at the source of Western culture, Shamsie broadly contextualises and heightens her matter. She is saying to us: pay attention, this is not just another story about a dysfunctional ethnic family, this is emblematic, a fable for our times with the weighty backing of ‘eternal’ laws, perhaps Fate, even the Gods. Is it? You decide.
The plot is unfolded through a succession of first person vignettes, and moves, more or less, chronologically. This ambitious schema does not succeed uniformly. The most convincing of the vignettes, psychologically, is the first, the elder sister, Isma, perhaps because she is closest to the author. But Isma has little to do with the central drama, she is a side player; after getting to know her so well, we don’t really see her again until the end of the novel. The main players are then realised one after another; after Isman, Eamonn, unusually both charismatic and innocent, then Parvaiz, Isma’s radicalised brother, Aneeka, his twin sister, and finally, Karamat, Eamonn’s father and the British Government Home Secretary (presumably partly modelled on London’s present Mayor, Sadiq Khan).
Most of this works well, but not all, as motivation and action are necessarily bound to a tense, tightly plotted story, and one that seems at the finish, predetermined. Two major character credibility problems for me were: I could not accept that Eamonn would not suspect Aneeka’s motives at the start of their relationship, and more significantly: Shamsie failed to convince me of Parvaiz’ conversion from a fairly normal teenager with a bit of a lost father fixation, to a jihadist, a radical for the most radical of causes. For this journey we needed a lot more.
But the set-up and telling is fascinating, enabling a range of profound insights and observations, political and personal, into the modern Islamic world, particularly in the West, and the manifold problems besetting it, and by extension, us.