Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – “Do not believe that you alone can be right”

This is my review of  Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Since it is a modern reworking of the classical tale of Antigone by Sophocles, although this was not specifically stated in the edition I read, the reader knows that “Home Fire” cannot end well, and that the author may be forgiven for a climax which may seem a little far-fetched and over-dramatic by modern standards.

The author draws on her experiences as a Pakistani to popularise ancient philosophical arguments into an emotionally charged exploration of the conflicting pressures to which Muslims may be exposed in Britain today: family loyalty and duty, ingrained religious beliefs, the desire to belong, be accepted, or succeed in not only one’s private life but also in the wider culture, versus love which may cut across any divide.

The story is told from the viewpoint of five characters who represent a spectrum of personalities and attitudes. Isma and her younger sister Anneka are two young, British Pakistani women pursuing academic courses in sociology and law respectively, who choose to wear a headscarf, are repelled even by the smell of wine and pray regularly, but here the similarities end. The serious-minded Isma puts her career ambitions on ice after graduation in order to care for Anneka and her twin brother Parvaiz when they were orphaned by their mother’s death, only pursuing an American PhD course in sociology when they seem old enough to live independently. The beautiful but passionate and reckless Anneka is devastated by her brother’s decision to join an extreme fundamentalist group in Raqqa, and furious with her sister for reporting this to the police, in a pragmatic attempt to protect the family from blame for his defection. Parvaiz himself seems immature and lost rather than evil, his main interest being in sound technology which can unfortunately be harnessed by the jihadists for their appalling videos of executions.

A contrasting view of integrated Muslims in Britain is provided by Eamonn Lone, the westernised, indulged son of the ambitious Karamat, who has achieved the goal of Home Secretary after a life-time of politicking, by turns trading on and repudiating his heritage. He has earned the undying hatred of Isma and her siblings by refusing to investigate how their absentee jihadist father died on the way to Guantanamo because, “They’re better off without him”.

Kamila Shamsie manages to include a wide range of viewpoints and arguments. Whereas the women are strong, the male characters tend to be weak or have very obvious feet of clay, which reduces one’s empathy with them. I agree with those who would like to have seen more of the thoughtful Isma who is studying sociology in an attempt “to understand why the world is so unfair”, or with those who found the section on Parvaiz too fragmented and rushed – although this could well have been intended to show his mental confusion as the scales fall from his eyes in the Jihadi hell to which he is transported.

The interplay between these characters provides the brew for an intriguing plot, the slow revelation of which made this into a page turner. However, knowing that it had won a major prize and been short-listed for another, I was initially very disappointed by the author’s style, in particular the tendency to slip into artificial, unnatural sentences. Even when I was hooked and admiring some of the strong dialogues, I was continually aware of passages that are too disjointed, condensed or overblown. I appreciate Kamila Shamsie’s up-to-date use of modern social media and internet technology to support her plot, but felt that the tone becomes too slick in later chapters, too larded with “House of Cards” cynicism and neat contrivances, with too many stereotypes like Farooq, who grooms Parvaiz with such a blatant lack of subtlety, together with the borderline Mills and Boon approach to romance.

I can understand the desire to write an accessible novel with wide appeal which lends itself readily to a film adaptation. This is a good choice for a reading group, or to provoke discussion, but I would have been more moved by a novel which dared to break away from the constraints of a classical tragedy in order to achieve a more measured and reflective approach, such as I have just found in Kazuo Ishiguru’s “An Artist of the Floating World”.

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