September 2017

by Helen Elliott

‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie
Shamsie’s seventh novel puts a modern spin on an Ancient Greek tragedy

Kamila Shamsie doesn’t write to entertain. She writes to explore the way the world functions, with a keen eye on that ancient Greek idea of everything being in flux. Home Fire (Bloomsbury; $22.49), her seventh novel, re-engineers Sophocles’ Antigone, the political drama that pits the state against the individual. What is morally right for one might not be right for the other. Right can legitimately belong to both sides.

Home Fire is told in four parts, each detailing the actions, the deliberated performance, of the four connected characters. Isma, a brilliant student, left university to care for her young twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, following their mother’s death. After working in a dry-cleaning business for years she has been offered a chance to continue a PhD in the United States, and although she believes that the twins, now 19, can look after themselves, she is anxious. The novel opens with a gruelling scene at the airport, where, because she is a Muslim woman and the daughter of a long-dead but known terrorist, Isma is abused by the authorities and misses her plane.

In the US, Isma finds contentment in her work, in her friendship with her supervisor, and in a casual new friend, Eamonn. Beautiful, sweet-natured Eamonn is the son of a British politician famous for his rigid policies on terrorists, a man who consistently puts the state before the personal. Isma, plain, sensible, rational, falls violently in love with Eamonn, with no expectation that it will be requited. At their last meeting in her austere flat he picks up a photo of the ravishing Aneeka. Back in London, Parvaiz becomes radicalised and leaves to join ISIS. Soon he realises his foolishness and, with Aneeka’s help, tries to return. The state has other ideas.

Shamsie, who was born in Karachi and has spent much of her life between London and Pakistan, presents the impossibilities of trying to live within and between two increasingly conflicted cultures. Each character has good reasons for their extreme positions, including Eamonn’s father, a Muslim who grew up poor in Bradford. This is not a subtle novel; everything is inevitable as it builds towards its tragic but unmoving end. Shamsie is great at detail and research but is lost for any psychological depth. Aneeka, who needs to centre the book, behaves like a maniacal robot, and the radicalisation of Parvaiz, with sexual overtones, verges on silly. But perhaps robot-like behaviour and sheer silliness are as relevant as anything else in a Trumpian world of constant flux?

The book is dedicated to Gillian Slovo. If you enjoy the solemnity and instruction of her work, you will also enjoy the work of Kamila Shamsie.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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