A novel like Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire – long listed for the Man Booker Prize – could not have existed ten years ago – even five years ago, at a push. For one thing, the Pakistani born author admits she wouldn’t have attempted to publish it before she became a British citizen in 2013. Mere weeks before that, the then Home Secretary Theresa May, had sent out vans to patrol London streets with slogans such as ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ painted on their sides. In this alarming atmosphere and with the accompanying increase in racial profiling, Shamsie didn’t feel complacent enough to push her luck with a book like this before she got her citizenship. Furthermore, it was the time before a British-Asian politician such as Sajid Javid, current Secretary of Culture, Media, and Sport, had attained such an exalted position within government. Given that one of the protagonists in this book, Karamat Lone, is a British-Asian Home Secretary, it might have strained the disbelief a reader would have had to suspend to fully enjoy the tale, if the character of Lone didn’t reflect the racial make-up of real life British politics.

It’s a bold, provocative, and timely book that chimes with the zeitgeist of here and now. It distils incendiary newspaper headlines into the calamitous tale of two families caught in the crosshairs of love, politics, religion and moral duty both to family and to state, bringing home to the reader how much British Muslims are aware of being viewed with suspicion. But this is a story that reaps more widely universal human themes than that. They all turn on the epigram at the start of the book, a quotation from Seamus Heaney’s translation and retelling of Sophocles’s 5th century BC tragedy, Antigone, “the ones we love…are enemies of the state.”[1]

Once the reader knows this is a reworking of Antigone (an enduring and popular subject for books, plays, and other works by writers such as the aforementioned Heaney, Jean Anouilh and Anne Carson), albeit one that doesn’t cleave too closely to the Greek precedent, the reader is braced for the catastrophe she knows must be looming. That disquiet, which builds in steady intensity as the story progresses, is palpable right from the beginning when we meet Isma, the eldest of three siblings, who has been detained for a humiliating round of questioning at Heathrow Airport before she leaves the country. She is quizzed about “Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, The Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.”[2] Humour leavens the dread though. In a role-play preparing for this exact scenario, her sister Aneeka says ”For instance, if they ask you about the Queen, just say ‘as an Asian I have to admire her colour palette.’”[3]

Isma is en route to Amherst in Massachusetts from Wembley in London to pursue a dream she put on hold – studying for a PhD in sociology – to raise her much younger twin siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz, following the death of their mother. Their father abandoned the family (the twins never met him) to fight in the Bosnian war as a jihadi in 1995, before going on to Chechnya and Afghanistan. In the latter, he was tortured in the notorious Bagram prison and dies en route to Guantánamo after that. Isma can’t stop fretting about her siblings even though they are ready to fly the coop. Aneeka, beautiful, fiery, and studying law, thinks she knows a lot more about a world that demands more moral compromise than she can imagine. Meanwhile Parvaiz has been seduced by Farooq (who is said to have an ‘ecosystem’ of a beard) and has left London to work for the media division of Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria. He labours under a profoundly naïve belief that he can claim the legacy of a father who he never met and who never gave any indication of actually caring about him. The reader is put in mind that the name “Antigone” means “worthy of one’s parents”[4] and the reader’s heart breaks for Parvaiz – his biggest crime is that he is young, foolish, and consumed with the need to belong.

Diametrically opposed to their family is the family of the complex figure of Karamat Lone. Lone, a British Muslim politician who has just been made Home Secretary, tells students on a visit to a Bradford School:

“You are, we are British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you. But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours.”[5]

Having jettisoned his own religion to further his political agenda, he tells Muslims that they shouldn’t freely express their religion if they do not want to appear un-British. In a scenario that reflects Theresa May’s real and seemingly tone-deaf actions when she was Home Secretary in 2014, and coinciding with the early days of Isis’s recruitment of young British men, Lone proposes revoking British citizenship from dual nationals suspected of acting against British interests. So rather than addressing the deep-rooted problem of why some young British Muslims feel alienated from wider society, Lone simply says, “I hate the Muslims who make people hate Muslims.”[6] It’s this intransigence, like Creon’s in Antigone, that proves his downfall. He is so bound and burdened by his pragmatism as a politician that he is blind to the more nuanced, politically savvy solutions available to him that would limit the damage that engulfs his family and shoot down the circling vultures in the form of his political rivals.

Meanwhile, his son Eamonn struggles with his own notions of what it means to be worthy of one’s parents, specifically of his father. Mixed-race (his mother is an Irish-American interior designer), something of a privileged gadabout, and non-religious – “is that a style thing or a Muslim thing?”[7] he asks Isma about the turban she wears. “You know,” she replies, “the only two people in Massachusetts who have ever asked me about it both wanted to know if it’s a style thing or a chemo thing.”[8] “Laughing, he said, ‘Cancer or Islam – which is the greater affliction?’” Even though there’s an undeniable connection between Isma and Eamonn, it’s Aneeka with whom he begins the torrid and secret love affair that sets both families on a collision course that will change their lives forever. But is Aneeka with him for love or convenience? Or both?

By aligning her story with Antigone, Shamsie has contextualised Home Fire within the canon of classic Western literature even if she didn’t set out to do so. Home Fire started life as a commission to write a play retelling Sophocle’s original, about a woman who buries (instead of leaving him to rot) her dead brother against the directive of King Creon. It is therefore pretty straightforward to track what Shamsie has made use of and what she has discarded of the Greek original. A young woman’s quest to dignify her brother in death remains but is utilised in a very different way to Sophocles’s story. Shamsie has reversed the natures of the two sisters but has kept the names of the characters, who are all foils for each other, very similar, possibly to the detriment of her own story. Isma is Ismene, Lone is Creon, Aneeka is Antigone and Eamonn is Haemon. That last stopped this reader short – it’s a peculiarly Irish name for the son of a British Muslim politician, especially for one who would have come of age during the IRA’s heyday of terrorism in mainland Britain. The author explains it away as an anglicising of the Pakistani name ‘Ayman’ in order for his father to aid assimilation into an unquestionably British way of life but it doesn’t quite ring true. It’s as if Shamsie realises this. Eamonn’s curiously Irish name is addressed two or three times during the narrative. Isma remembers how her family laughed when a newspaper article accompanying a Lone family photograph revealed Eamonn’s name. They conclude that it’s just another indicator of Lone’s ‘integrationist posing.’

The same overarching themes are here as in Sophocle’s tragedy: tension between individual actions and irreversible consequences; the political as personal and the political versus the personal; the locus of loyalty; citizenship and statelessness; and the struggle between idealism and pragmatism.

Shamsie’s seventh novel, is an unabashedly political one that manages to neatly sidestep polemics. This is partly because it is a masterfully woven story told in a lucid, plain-spoken style that knows when to wield humour and dialogue effectively and what to leave unsaid. It is also because the book is divided into five parts, switching points of view between all the main protagonists so that the reader realises that the writer is taking no one’s side. Nobody is blameless in this novel. It’s a gripping literary thriller that wears its weighty themes lightly making it a compelling read. There are some small missteps in the telling though – the last third of the novel is told in broader brushstrokes than serves the story properly and is there a whiff of deus ex machina in the undeniably memorable ending? The jury’s out on whether it’s a twist too far for this reader. Now that British politics is slowly embracing diversity (its very slow even given the ascension of Sadiq Khan to Mayor of London and the aforementioned Sajid Javid to the front bench of the present government), it’s possible for this novel to exist but it still feels like a bit of a stretch to imagine a British Home Secretary who comes from an ethnic minority. But these are all mere quibbles.

Above all, this book is primarily about the cost of (and lack of) love, both romantic and familial that makes good on the allusions in its title. It’s easy to see why it was long listed for the Man Booker. It’s a well-paced literary thriller addressing concerns that are very current with many visually arresting set pieces and as such, would also make for an electrifying story on screen

[1] Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire n.p. (Bloomsbury Circus, 2017)

[2] Ibid. p. 5

[3] Ibid. p. 6

[4] ‘Antigone’. n.d. In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 15, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antigone

[5] Ibid. p. 88

[6] Ibid. p. 231

[7] Ibid. p. 21

[8] Ibid. p. 21