“Habits of secrecy are damaging things.”
Home Fire, long listed for this year’s Mann Booker Prize, is Kamila Shamsie’s much acclaimed 7th novel, and the first of hers I’ve read though I’ve long admired her essays. Shamsie uses the old Greek myth about Antigone, to underpin a very modern story following a British Pakistani family based in London. Note: I would recommend not re-reading Antigone beforehand unless you want spoilers to almost every plot point in the book (I refreshed my failed memory afterwards ).
Isma Pasha is in her late 20s, quiet and hard working, about to start a graduate program in the States. Her life is finally in her own hands after helping raise her much younger siblings, twins Aneeka (the headstrong beautiful one) and Parvaiz (the dangerously aimless one). Their parents are long dead, their father a jihadist, often absent through their childhood, yet still a powerful pull. The handsome son of a controversial political figure in London enters their lives, and the novel races from taut beginning to shocking end.
“For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition.”
Shamsie is a brilliant psychological writer, and her characters inhabit class, race, and gender in varying and vivid states. The scenes are sharply and finely drawn, the dialogue precise and clever, and the plot vibrates with increasing intensity. There is a bit of hysteria and Hollywood overblown-ness towards the end, though in fairness, Greek tragedies aren't exactly understated either. Neither, for that matter, is the war on terror or the war on the west. I'm also a little over fraternal boy-girl twins being portrayed as mind-meld ESP close.
One of the most powerful lessons Home Fire drove home for me was how the government programs that pursue and punish home grown radicals end up devastating their families. Isma barely knew her father, and her younger siblings never even met him, yet his jihadist life and mysterious death haunt them long after, not just psychologically, but legally, logistically, inescapably. Rifts are created within their family and community, educational and professional ambitions are disrupted, their very movement through the world thwarted. It’s terrifying to see these effects ripple through and to begin to understand how Muslim communities, and by racist conflation, people of color, are affected by Western anti-terrorism programs and policies.
Home Fire is a novel for our times, stretching from family ties and community to the wider sweep of global terrorism, religion and radicalism, immigration and nativism, and what we do for love and war. The book will keep you turning pages, but moreover, its gift is its resonance, making the intimate a deeply political act, and the political honing unerringly home.