Author Kamila Shamsie © Zain Mustafa

2017 Man Booker Review: Home Fire

6th September 2017

By Jill Glenn

A book both wonderful and terrible (in that it deals with terrible things), Kamila Shamsie’s ‘Home Fire’ occupies the interstices between the head and the heart, between politics and faith.

It’s easy to make it sound trivial; in fact, an introduction to the plot and characters is all blockbuster. There’s a sensible academic, Isma, who’s picking up the threads of her life after raising her orphaned siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz (twins, naturally): a maverick girl, a missing renegade boy unaccountably missing in action; there’s a politician, Karamat Lone, whose past is intertwined with that of Isma’s family, and his handsome son, Eamonn; there are international settings (London, Massachusetts, Karachi, Istanbul) and complex backstories. It is a book for which the phrase ‘the sins of the fathers’ could have been coined.

If not trivial, it’s certainly melodramatic – and that’s not surprising. ‘Home Fire’ owes much to Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ (indeed, its epigraph is a line from the Seamus Heaney translation: ‘The ones we love… are enemies of the state’), although it is more than just a simple retelling, more than just a modern-day version. This is an intelligent, topical reinterpretation, with all Shamsie’s hallmark thoughtfulness and discretion. She realises the characters with great subtlety and sophistication. The threads of their intense relationships are carefully manipulated by a puppetmeister extraordinaire, in a book that is very much for and of our times. Shamsie has a gift for taking the universal and making it small and intimate and human – and a gift for taking the shocking and making that understandable and human too.

Missing Parvaiz is, as is hinted at early in the book, following in the path of his long absent jihadist father, who died en route to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Like a little boy lost, Parvaiz was ripe for radicalisation: almost before he knows it, he finds himself a member of a militant group in the middle east, recruited to their ‘media section’. How his sisters react and respond forms the basis of the story, which unfolds in five sections, each focusing on one of the main characters: Isma, Eamonn, Parvaiz, Aneeka, Karamat. It’s a clever approach, which allows us to become close to each individual in turn, and forcing us out of complacency and prejudice. Shamsie also has the courage to leave loose ends, which is both admirable and irritating.

Her beautiful prose is occasionally just too rich – but you forgive her, because she conjures up such indelible images. There are heart-stopping moments; at least twice I reread a page in the hope that I had just misunderstood something… maybe it will have happened differently if I go back over it again.

‘Home Fire’ would probably make a great movie – from the first scene (Isma at Heathrow, about to miss her flight to America: ‘She had expected the interrogation but not the hours of waiting that would preceded it’; the officer ‘wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites’) to the last (which I can hardly allude to without the risk of a spoiler) there is a cinematic intensity about the story and the structure. But the book is so much more than a movie could ever be, and confirms Kamila Shamsie as a writer with her finger very much on the pulse of the modern world.

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