Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

A man needed fire in his veins to burn through the world

9781408886755

caution: some spoilers ahead

I didn’t think I was going to write a full-length review of this, but two things have changed my mind. One is this post from Victoria Best at Tales From the Reading Room, which poses the question “what kind of critic are you?” and, just as importantly, “what kind of criticism is most helpful to you?” while examining Deborah Levy’s symbol-heavy novel Hot Milk from both a critical academic perspective and a more general reader’s one. The second is Victoria Hoyle’s Booktube review of three Booker-longlisted novels, including Home Fire, where she elegantly dissects her contradictory reactions to Shamsie’s book: frustrated by having been emotionally manipulated, let down by characters that feel stereotypical, but – despite all that – effectively moved. My initial reaction to Home Fire was more positive than hers, but after watching her video, I began to wonder about the extent to which I’d been reading as a critic versus as a general reader, and why I had – at least initially – felt no ambivalence about Shamsie’s admittedly opinionated storytelling.

Home Fire is a retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone, but I read it without brushing up on the older story, and can confirm that it didn’t noticeably hamper my experience to read it simply as a hyper-contemporary literary political novel. Shamsie uses five point-of-view characters: Isma, the daughter of a jihadi who died on the way to Guantanamo, who has been supporting her younger siblings for years and is now—freed by their accession to adulthood—starting a PhD program in the States; Aneeka, her passionate and beautiful younger sister; Parvaiz, Aneeka’s fraternal twin, desperate for direction about how to be a man; Karamat Lone, a Home Secretary of Pakistani origin whose hard-line stance on Muslims and immigration has been at the centre of much controversy; and Karamat’s son Eamonn, born into privilege, who becomes Aneeka’s lover. As the story progresses, each character gives us their own perspective on the issues of freedom, citizenship, love and duty that the story circles.

Much of the negative commentary I’ve seen about Home Fire has focused on Shamsie’s construction of these characters: they’ve most often been called “one-dimensional”, “stereotypical” or “flat”. I would contend that this is a reductive way of reading, not a quality inherent to the characters. Take Aneeka, for instance: a devout nineteen-year-old Muslim who prays at dawn, has extra-marital sex, and makes her hijab the last thing her lover is allowed to take off. Take Isma: both sister and mother to her siblings, the proverbial “strong woman”, yet too afraid, when she finally launches into the world, to make the first move towards a man who attracts her. These are unusual women, unusual heroines, especially of contemporary literature; they are serious and convicted. Their faith is significant to them, and therefore must be taken seriously by the reader. Their wounds are not merely personal; they have inherited distrust and division, their father’s death as a terrorist in captivity marking them out permanently to the governments of the West as Persons Of Interest. The Pasha siblings are slightly cold fish, but that’s the point: when you live under the weight of suspicion from everyone around you, for things you didn’t even do, that happens. (Aneeka speaks, sarcastically, of the dangers of Googling While Muslim.) It is not, I think, the sort of dynamic we are accustomed to. We tend to want our heroines feisty—or failing that, broken, but, you know, picturesquely. (Whitely. Middle class-ly.)

I’ve long been suspicious that people who find novels “too political” are people who don’t need to think about politics all the time. Lots of us would love not to have to politicise everything, but our lives and opinions are valued at a lower price, and so everything is political; when you struggle to thrive in a society that mistrusts, scorns, or blames you, life itself is a political act. I’m white and well-educated, but I’m also female and disabled. There are elements of daily living that are a constant uphill struggle for me: balancing meals and a social life with medication and self-care. Convincing a GP to change my prescriptions when things aren’t working. Getting a pharmacist to re-dispense that prescription when it hasn’t come through for seventy-two hours and I no longer have enough insulin to last through the night. I don’t talk to anyone about these things—partly because they are quotidian for me, and partly because no one else I know will really have had that experience.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Home Fire’s “political” nature is necessary, inherent even, to telling a story about a Muslim family in contemporary Britain. Of course not every Muslim family has a brother who runs away to join IS, or a father who died on the way from Bagram to Guantanamo. But the constant surveillance of the state, particularly the eyes that are fixed upon Muslim children lest they show the slightest sign of the dreaded radicalisation—that is a reality for so many immigrants to this country, and it’s foolish to be surprised by how abundantly clear Shamsie makes that fact. Googling While Muslim is the least of it. Visas can be refused, careers cut short, degrees torpedoed. When Parvaiz is a little boy, the Pashas are visited by a man from the security services who takes from Parvaiz’s bedroom the only thing he has from his father: a photograph album containing pictures of Adil Pasha toting guns in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and inscribed When you’re older, son. After the story’s first tragedy, this same security officer is interviewed on television: he describes that visit and that album, and suggests it’s a shame that Child Protection Services weren’t involved immediately. Nowhere do we see that officer—or the country he works for—offer Parvaiz, and his sisters and mother, anything substantial—no financial assistance, no mentoring, no help obtaining apprenticeships or scholarships—in return for what is taken from them in dignity and in trust.

So much for the emotional potency of Home Fire, which even its detractors have admitted is one of its strengths; what of its weaknesses? Shamsie’s prose is capable, but often slides into melodrama. Especially in dialogue and at the ends of chapters, she has a tendency to seek significance and profundity for every plot point. In fact, the whole book skirts melodrama almost as a matter of course. (It’s based on a Greek tragedy; how could it not?) Some credibility is lost with Aneeka’s mad vigil over Parvaiz’s body in the park, with Eamonn’s wild flight to find her there, and with the last two pages in their entirety. (Some of this is down to the fact that Aneeka and Eamonn are, at least to me, not especially credible lovers. Eamonn’s and Isma’s interactions, showcased by the misdirection at the beginning of the book, are much more interesting.) Karamat Lone, also, is a little too purely villainous to be convincing, despite Shamsie loading him with a backstory that at least makes sense of his stubborn championing of assimilation. (That said, the shenanigans that Theresa May pulled when Home Secretary, particularly towards LGBTQ asylum-seekers, are almost enough to make Lone look eminently reasonable and pleasant.)

For all that, I still think it’s an incredibly important book, and the fact that it’s set so firmly in the present day—engaging so firmly with present-day concerns—doesn’t diminish it, but instead makes it essential reading. Shamsie is presenting a world here that many of her readers will never be forced to engage with or have to navigate; we can choose to read this story or to put it aside. It is a story fraught with fear and tension and the possibility of betraying someone no matter what you do, and the fact that it is being billed as a retelling of an ancient Greek tale suggests to me that its significance will not fade as its cultural referents do. It does deserve to be on the Man Booker Prize longlist; it also deserves to be widely read.

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15 thoughts on “Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

  1. Saying simply ‘great review’ hardly does your thorough, excellent review justice 🙂
    I also enjoyed Victoria’s thoughts on Hot Milk – did make me think about how I review and what I want from a review.

    • Thank you very much! I know that I’ve been reading differently recently, and I think it’s less critical than it usually is, so I wanted to get back to that.

  2. This is a fascinating post. I’d decided not to read Home Fire after seeing Victoria H’s comments on Goodreads, which chimed very much with my experience of A God in Every Stone. However, you make Home Fire sound a lot better than her previous novel, although I’m not sure I quite understand the point about the characters being falsely accused of being ‘flat’ – are you saying that critics are viewing these characters as stereotypical because they’re linked to certain kinds of political identity, and moreover, culturally biased assumptions about what makes a ‘complex’ character? (I’m interested because one of my major problems with A God in Every Stone was the characterisation). However, I’m now much more tempted to read this myself…

    • Yes, that’s it exactly – Aneeka, for instance, isn’t a flat character, but she’s a hijab-wearing tragic heroine motivated by religion and family, and I wonder if that reads as “stereotypical” to Western audiences. (Culturally biased assumptions about complex characters is exactly the way I should have phrased it.)

  3. This is the one book from the longlist that I wish I could get to before the shortlist announcement, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

    I think you’ve always done a wonderful job of balancing academic-level criticism and honest reader response — like your tagline states.
    .

  4. What a fascinating review of an author I really want to read as soon as I can get to her. I completely agree with you about the issue of politicization. Would it be possible to write a novel about Muslim experience in the UK (or anywhere) without a political dimension? What would it look like? And then following on from that, could any novel avoid some brush with politics in this contemporary climate, when the family is the place where all political decisions end up having their ultimate consequences? I also wonder whether the detractors from the novel are people who simply think differently to Shamsie in their politics, because not wanting to have a situation shown through a political lens is, after all, a very definite political response. Anyhow, I love the questions you raise here and the justice you do to Shamsie’s novel.

    • Thank you! I think it might be possible to write a novel about a Muslim family elsewhere without the political dimension looming so necessarily large, but then perhaps it would simply be a different set of political issues. I’ve just finished Pajtim Statovci’s novel My Cat Yugoslavia, which partly deals with the experience of Albanian Muslims in Kosovo, and there’s an element of politics (necessarily) but it feels very different to the way politics permeates Shamsie’s story; Statovci’s book has to deal with ethnically-based war because that is what comes to Kosovo at the time he’s writing about, whereas I think Shamsie is explicitly interested in the politics.

      An interesting question about whether any contemporary novel can avoid political questions. I would say that no contemporary novel should shirk those, but then I’m writing a book set in the early years of the current decade and there’s virtually no political content in it at all. In a way I guess that’s the point – my characters are all very privileged students in a very rarefied world, and their undergraduate environs are everything to them; nothing else outside of their bubble seems quite real – but maybe I should make some edits…

      • I love the sound of your novel. I expect, rather than edits, you’ll end up with consequences for your characters. Because the real world always bites back when people try to ignore it! I’ll look forward to your review of the Statovci – it also sounds very interesting.

      • Ah, you’re probably right… The Statovci will take a day or two to review, I expect – have to sort out my thoughts first. It’s quite an interesting book, but it left me feeling a bit empty.

  5. I loved this book, and I didn’t find the characters particularly flat. I thought Shamsie did a good job at allowing us to see enough of each of them to understand them, even if we didn’t always like or agree with them. I do think Aneeka’s motivations are kept a little more mysterious, which makes the end a lot more potent to me.

    I also agree with you that Eamonn’s relationship with Isma was much more interesting than the one with Aneeka. But the relationship with Aneeka seemed to fit the story and characters–and not just because it needed to for the Antigone parallel to work.

    • Yes, agreed – I was saddened but not surprised when it became clear that Eamonn and Aneeka were being written for each other. Glad you liked this too! It’s obviously a Marmite book…

  6. I’ve just finished this and loved it (though agree about the ending – too over dramatic for my liking). There are definite flaws but I was hooked from the start and it engaged me on an emotional level.

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