• Muhammad Nadeem
  • Publish Date: Jul 22 2018 9:01PM
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  • Updated Date: Jul 22 2018 9:01PM

Reading Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire

Kamila Shamsie’s seventh novel, Home Fire, was shortlisted for 2017 Man Booker Prize and Costa Book Award. It is a very loose adaptation of Sophocles’ ancient Greek drama Antigone. Its contemporaneity derives from a story set in the present day, whose drama is generated by Parvaiz Pasha traveling from London to Raqqa to join ISIS. Adding to the sense of the present, there are sibling relationships conducted on Skype and FaceTime, and a narrative that at one point moves forward through Twitter #trends.

It is a modern commentary on the tragedies of our times, running from the societal — terrorism, racism, political ambition — to the personal — love, loyalty and familial duty. In Sophocles’ play, Antigone’s brother Polynices is forbidden a proper burial by their uncle, Creon the King of Thebes since he is considered a traitor. Antigone is placed in the position of obeying the law or risking death to give her brother a proper burial. She risks death if she follows her religion. The horrific alternative is that she leaves her brother’s body outside the city walls, to be eaten by dogs. She and Haemon, to whom she was engaged, come to a tragic end because of her decision.

In Shamsie’s version, we have two families, the Pashas, and the Lones, living out a similar scenario in modern day London. Twenty-eight-year-old Isme Pasha is the older sister of the 19-year old twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz, whom she raised after the deaths of their Pakistani-born parents. Their mostly absent father had been a Taliban fighter who was tortured in Bagram Prison and died on the way to imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay.

Isma’s own apprehensiveness showcases her more seasoned perspective, the writing in her chapters less frenetic than those of her younger sister. For the most part, Shamsie maintains steady pacing over each chapter, other than when writing from Aneeka’s point of view. Aneeka’s chapters diverge in length and structure, offering a more scattered and experimental midsection to the novel, which comes as a pleasant surprise. The change in style also aligns with Aneeka’s frantic and confused loyalties—her range of emotions is apt-suited for the aesthetic variation. Isma wants to live her own life and has moved to Amherst, Massachusetts to begin work on a Ph.D. in Sociology. Aneeka, beautiful and smart, has just started Law School but Parvaiz dreams of becoming a sound engineer and drifting through life. The motives of the five characters are complex yet simple: they are bound by honor, loyalty, and duty.

In Amherst Isma meets Eammon Lone, the bi-racial son of a Pakistani-born Conservative politician, Karamat Lone, who has just been named as Britain’s Home Secretary, in charge of immigration, citizenship, policing and prisons. Lone is married to a wealthy white American-born businesswoman and is determined to be as tough on terrorism as possible to defang critics who object to a person of Pakistani origin in his position. Eammon is in Amherst visiting his American grandparents and is generally clueless about his Muslim heritage. When Eammon returns to London he meets Aneeka and is immediately smitten. They begin a passionate and somewhat kinky secret affair.

Parvaiz has recently become radicalized and suddenly left for Raqqa, Syria with the media wing of ISIS. He winds up working on films, including beheadings. He is contrite and wants to come home. Eammon learns that Aneeka began their affair hoping to use him to influence his father to allow Parvaiz to return home. When Parvaiz is killed trying to defect from ISIS, Karamat retroactively revokes Parvaiz’s British citizenship and refuses his body’s burial in Britain.

Shamsie’s writing, which is beautiful without being florid, and urgent without being rushed. In one passage in Aneeka’s section, Shamsie delivers a moving meditation on grief: grief was bad-tempered; grief was kind; grief saw nothing but itself; grief saw every speck of pain in the world; grief spread its wings large like an eagle, grief huddled small like a porcupine; grief needed company, grief craved solitude; grief wanted to remember, wanted to forget; grief raged, grief whimpered.

Home Fire is impressive and, in its final pages, deeply moving – a complex meditation on the ties that bind, no matter how hard we struggle to be free. By turns deeply humane and provocative, Home Fire is a bold, thoughtful take on the relationships between society, politics, family, and faith in a fractured and dangerous world. Home Fire pulls off a fine balancing act: it is a powerful exploration of the clash between society, family, and faith in the modern world while tipping its hat to the same dilemma in the ancient one.