Kamila Shamsie, who now calls London home and holds dual citizenship in Pakistan and Britain, sets her seventh novel, Home Fire, against the tumult of contemporary British politics of Brexit, immigration rights, and strengthening conservatism of its ruling class.
Home Fire is based on Sophocles’ Greek tragedy, Antigone, in which the eponymous young Theban woman of the play confronts Creon, the ruler, for the right to give her brother, Polyneices, a proper burial. Polyneices is deemed a traitor to the state for attempting to wage war on Thebes.
Shamsie updates this tale in a version that is timely and relevant, taking on the issues of Islam, terrorism, and immigration in the West. Her characters are Pakistani-British and dealing with the increasing hostility of being publicly visible as Muslim. Her novel is, at heart, about how people marked as “Other” try to survive.
The book opens with Isma enduring an interrogation at the airport before she flies off to the United States for her graduate studies. The scene is tense, but Shamsie is well-aware of the absurdities of racism and the elements that go into the making of a patriotic citizen: “The interrogation continued for nearly two hours. He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites”.
Isma is the oldest of three siblings. After their father abandoned the family to fight with various Islamic groups and their mother died early, Isma became a mother figure to Aneeka and Parvaiz.
When we meet Isma, we learn that Parvaiz has gone the same route as their father. Isma is devastated – she knows what living in the shadow of a man branded a terrorist is like for Muslim families in Britain – but also practical: Her main goal is to keep college-going Aneeka, the apple of her eye and future lawyer, safe. This means disassociating the family from Parvaiz’s actions.
Meanwhile, attractive hipster Eamonn appears, spewing eye-rolling dialogue. He is the privileged son of British-Muslim MP Karamat Lone that Isma is extremely wary of. The story of why unspools across the pages, but Isma’s unexpected and unrequited crush on Eamonn is one of Shamsie’s first missteps.
Eamonn meets Aneeka and promptly falls in love. However, the sections written from Eamonn’s point of view fail to elevate the romance into something more substantial that powers the heart of the story. Aneeka comes off as a cardboard character of a moody girl who is mysterious in her ways and beautiful and unpredictable and impulsive, while Eamonn is a shell of charm and humour and earnest do-gooder privilege.
Much of the gravitas of Antigone is lost because Aneeka is not given the depth of a narrative voice. We see her through others. To Eamonn, who is cosmopolitan and posh, Aneeka appears as some Manic Pixie Muslim Dream Girl because she wears the hijab and is also sexy.
There are sections devoted to Parvaiz and Karamat, both of whom are interesting but not allowed to develop organically. There is a sense that Shamsie needed the story to fit the framework of Antigone, and the effect is rushed and stilted. Parvaiz is lured by fundamentalism seemingly overnight and abandons his family but just as quickly regrets his decision. Karamat, meanwhile, has risen up the political ranks and is now Britain’s Home Minister and keen to distance himself from Islam on the whole. “I hate the Muslims who make people hate Muslims”, he says.
While in Sophocles’ play Antigone gets to have her say, in Shamsie’s book Aneeka’s voice is fragmented and muted, as we are only allowed to meet her during a difficult time. Shamsie uses newspaper reports and tweets as the book’s “chorus”, but incorporates them in the Aneeka section. Thus, Aneeka’s moral argument in favour of her brother is submerged. Karamat, as a servant of the security state increasingly using surveillance, incarceration, and torture to keep its borders “pure”, is rendered sympathetically. He has the final word before what can only be described as a hackneyed Bollywood ending closes the story.
The cheesy romance and ending, the paper-thin characterisation – this suggests that the reader is meant to fill in the gaps by connecting Shamsie’s book to the long, rich history of interpretations and readings of Antigone. Instead of fleshing out a key character in the novel and the mechanics of its plot, we are meant to assume Aneeka’s actions are powerful and tragic based on what we know about the original tragedy.
Or perhaps Shamsie was encouraged to rush through this book to release it in time to capitalise on Britain’s current political tumult surrounding immigration issues while they are foremost on people’s minds, before they move on to the next news story.
State power, borders, and terrorism: the ideas are worth thinking about but the depth of the novel is less a feature of its writing, structure, characters, and plot, and more about what present-day readers will bring to their reading of the book. It’s the fact that it’s about our current political and social issues and the fact that it’s based on Antigone. But Home Fire feels strangely empty, lacking emotional truth and is somewhat ham-handed in its execution.
It’s important for novels to confront the political and social issues of our time. As a work of art, a novel should also ideally enable us to think anew. Sadly, Home Fire’s multiple perspectives read like something we’ve read before in various op-eds and opinion pieces. It feels overdetermined and stale.
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Publisher: Bloomsbury, contemporary fiction