September 2017


‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

By Helen Elliott
Cover of Home Fire
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.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

In This Issue

‘Whipbird’ by Robert Drewe

Hamish Hamilton; $32.99


A beautiful chaos

The Artful Dodgers Studios is a haven for young artists and musicians

Image of Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest

Title fight

The people of the Pilbara take on Australia’s great philanthropist

Image of Alice Springs

The crankhandle of history

Thirty years on, what should we make of Bruce Chatwin’s song to the songlines?

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality