I read Home Fire in two days, I thought it was brilliantly done, heartbreaking, tragic, essential. It’s been long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017 and certainly makes my short list! I’m looking forward to reading more of the author’s back list.
Underpinning the novel is the premise of Sophocles’ 5thC BC play Antigone, an exploration of the conflict between those who affirm the individual’s human rights and those who must protect the state’s security.
Before reading Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, I downloaded a translation of Antigone to read, she acknowledges herself that Anne Carson’s translation of Antigone (Oberon Books, 2015) and The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone by Seamus Heaney were constant companions as she wrote, expressing gratitude too, for the children’s book version The Story of Antigone and its author Ali Smith.
In Ali Smith’s version there is a discussion at the end of the book about what stories are, which reads:
“Stories are a kind of nourishment. We do need them, and the fact that the story of Antigone, a story about a girl who wants to honour the body of her dead brother, and why she does, keeps being told suggests that we do need this story, that it might be one of the ways that we make life and death meaningful, that it might be a way to help us understand life and death, and that there’s something nourishing in it, even though it is full of terrible and difficult things, a very dark story full of sadness.”
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is a contemporary retelling of the classic play, set in contemporary London. Even though I knew the premise of the story from having read the play, the story unfolded as if I had no prior knowledge of its likely outcome, it has its own unique surprises and insights, making it a compelling read.
We meet Isma, the eldest daughter of a family, who’ve been raised by their mother and grandmother, as she announces to her twin brother and sister Aneeka and Parvaiz that she is going to the US to complete her PhD studies that were put on pause after the death of their mother and grandmother within the space of a year, leaving her to become the mother to griefstruck twelve-year-old twins. She had briefly known her father, but the twins never.
The rigorous interrogation she is put through on leaving the UK reveal something in her family background that their entire family has tried to keep quiet, just wanting to move on with their lives, that their father had abandoned them and gone to fight as a jihadi in Afghanistan and had died en route to Guantanamo.
While in the US, Isma meets Eamonn, the son of a British politician she detests, setting in motion a litany of events that will have a catastrophic impact on both their families.
“Eamonn, that was his name. How they’d laughed in Wembley when the newspaper article accompanying the family picture revealed this detail, an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name – Ayman become Eamonn so that people would know the father had integrated.”
For Parvaiz, the only son, the lack of a father figure created a void, his grandmother had been the only family member willing to talk about him, but her stories were always of the boy, never of the man he became, a subject she was reluctant to be drawn into.
“He had always watched boys and their fathers with an avidity composed primarily of hunger. Whenever any of those fathers had made a certain gesture towards him – a hand placed on the back of his neck, the word ‘son’, an invitation to a football match – he’d retreat, both ashamed and afraid in a jumbled way that only grew more so as the years passed and the world of girls and boys grew more separate, so there were times he was not a twin to a twin but rather the only male in a house that knew all the secrets that women shared with on another but none that fathers taught their son.”
It’s a riveting, intense novel that propels the reader forward, even while something in us wants to resist what we can feel coming. It pits love against loyalty, family versus country, and cruelly displays how hard it is for families to distance themselves from the negative patterns of their ancestral past.
Kamila Shamsie was born in Karachi and now lives in London, a dual citizen of the UK and Pakistan. Her debut novel In The City by the Sea, written while still in college, was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in the UK and every novel since then has been highly acclaimed and shortlisted or won a literary prize, in 2013 she was included in the Granta list of 20 best young British writers.
Her novels are (linked to Goodreads):
- In the City by the Sea (1998)
- Salt and Saffron (2000)
- Kartography (2002)
- Broken Verses (2005)
- Offence : the Muslim case (2009)
- Burnt Shadows (2009)
- A God in Every Stone (2014)
- Home Fire (2017)
Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.