Home Fire is a novel of such acute insight into our contemporary condition that it’s a bit of a shock to realise it’s based on a play written 2500 years ago. Author Kamila Shamsie signals her debt to Sophocles’ Antigone with her epigraph: “The ones we love … are enemies of the state.” In the classic play, Antigone’s beloved brother Polynices is killed in a rebellion and the king denies him a proper burial. Antigone defies the king to bury her brother. The king punishes her, but as a consequence loses his own son, who is her betrothed. It is a searing tale about love, loyalty and family in conflict. Add faith to the mix, take terrorism as the ultimate and most destructive of rebellions, set the story in London and you’ve got the explosive premise of Shamsie’s sensational seventh novel, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize .
Home Fire is divided into five sections, one for each of its protagonists. Perspectives shift, angles tilt. First is Isma, who with her younger twin siblings was orphaned when their long-absent father dramatically reappeared in their lives as a dead terrorist, tortured and gone before he even reached Guantanamo. In the United States to do a PhD, Isma meets Eamonn, a charming and wealthy knockabout. “Eamonn” turns out to be an Anglicisation of the Muslim name Ayman. And Eamonn turns out to be the son of Karamat Lone, an ostentatiously assimilated and ambitious Pakistani immigrant who has become British home secretary. We then join Isma’s 19-year-old brother, Parvaiz, who has recently disappeared under sickeningly suspicious circumstances. The fourth part pivots to Parvaiz’s clever, beautiful and devoted twin sister, Aneeka, a law student who becomes fatefully entangled with Eamonn, leading to a crisis that is both personal and political for them all.
Aneeka and Parvaiz are literal twins, but Home Fire is littered with symbolic pairs. There is family and country; fathers and sons; the religious and the profane; brutality and compassion; privilege and poverty and “people like me and people like you”, as Aneeka remarks to Eamonn. Also, torture as applied by the CIA to save Western civilisation and as practised by ISIS (Daesh) to destroy it, each drawing justification from the other. Like yin and yang, the pairs circle in eternal embrace, each containing a dollop of the other.
Karamat himself is a collection of opposites: “Working class or Millionaire, Muslim or Ex-Muslim, Proud-Son-of-Migrants or anti-Migrant, Moderniser or Traditionalist? Will the real Karamat Lone please stand up?” Yet for all his own inner and unresolved contradictions, Karamat cannot countenance the notion of subjective reality embodied in the phrase “my truth”. “Hateful expression,” he reflects, “something so egocentric in it. And something so cynical, also, about all those absolute truths in the world.”
In a widely publicised speech, Karamat addresses students at a largely Muslim school. He promises them: “There is nothing this country won’t allow you to achieve … You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this.” But, he warns them, “don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multiethnic, multi-religious, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours.” His approval ratings soar. Aneeka, who wears a hijab, gets spat upon on the Tube.
This is in many ways a novel of archetypes and ideas, but it never descends into turgidity. Shamsie’s prose is vivid, urgent and sensual. She is a sharp-eyed observer of gesture and emotion: a man walks away from a woman, and steps onto the street out of sight “rolling back his shoulders as if released from the weight of her company”. Passing into Aneeka’s section, she makes an interesting stylistic change. Aneeka is so emotionally joined to Parvaiz that for her, “we” has always been a more natural pronoun than “I”. But disordered by his absence, her pronouns drop away as though amputated: “Packed a suitcase, wheeled it outside, the first time leaving the house in days …” The narrative itself fractures as her story becomes public; it fractures into hashtags (“#GOBACKWHEREYOUCAMEFROM”), tabloid features and then, suddenly, a short poem that appears to have spilled straight from her weeping heart.
Early in the novel, Aneeka makes a wry comment about the dangers of “Googling While Muslim”. She and Isma are both tough-minded and capable women who respond to the tumultuous political, financial and emotional challenges of their situation, at least at first, with a mix of righteousness and humour. The three male protagonists are far weaker and needier by comparison, more vulnerable to social pressure.
Home Fire paints a terrifying and credible portrait of how Daesh targets, radicalises and recruits young men – expertly assessing their needs and vulnerabilities. The men of this shadow world are preoccupied with masculinity, pumped up with misogyny, unable to deal with female strength except by force and selective quotation from the Koran. They see the world in a particular way that shapes everything they do.
And here it all tilts again, for this outlook, too, has its mirror pair in the brand of militant Islamophobia on which tabloids thrive and which similarly builds on crude stereotyping, slut-shaming, bullying and an inability to see shades of grey. In Home Fire we see both sides peddling cynical and bankrupt morality tales that serve the common goal of making it appear to be a contradiction to be simultaneously British – or Australian or any other non-Muslim country’s citizen – and Muslim. Our five protagonists struggle to get on with life, dealing with the smaller challenges that they can laugh or shrug off, albeit often with gritted teeth, as well as the bigger and violent threats of the hatemongers from both sides. The quotation from Antigone signals tragedy. A brave and timely work, Home Fire pushes us to ask if it could be otherwise. CG
Bloomsbury Circus, 272pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 23, 2017 as "Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire". Subscribe here.