Winner of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction, it is not hard to see why Kamila Shamsie’s seventh novel, Home Fire, touched so many readers. This is a beautiful, heart-breaking and thought-provoking deep dive into the social injustices faced by Muslims in Britain, and how the values of society, family and faith can clash in catastrophic ways.
Home Fire is a modern retelling of the Sophocles play Antigone, based in ancient Greek times in which a young girl is forced to choose between honouring the law or honouring her dead brother, who has been deemed a traitor to his country. Shamsie has skilfully adapted this story to reflect the current cultural and political clashes that exist in today’s world.
The story begins at a London airport where Isma, the older sister, is being interrogated before her intended flight to Amherst, Massachusetts. Despite holding a valid visa and a flight ticket, she is held in a room for hours simply because she is Muslim. She is treated poorly and made to feel terrified and ashamed. “The officer took hold of every item of Isma’s clothing and ran it between her fingers, not so much searching for hidden pockets as judging the quality of the material.” Eventually she is approved to travel and it is here that the story of Isma and her twin siblings, Anneka and Parvaiz, unfolds.
Isma has moved to the United States to undertake a PhD; Anneka is studying law in London. Parvaiz, however, is adrift. He feels he is losing his family and the close connection he has to his twin. He still carries the pain of abandonment by his jihadist father, and this pain makes him an easy target for an opportunistic jihadi recruiter.
Isma is sensible, calm and rational. Anneka is head-strong, passionate and determined. Both sisters feel the pain of Parvaiz leaving them to lead the same life as their father, but respond to this pain in very different ways.
Add to the mix the new Home Secretary, a man who has eschewed his Muslim heritage in order to rise to the top of British politics. He regularly offends the British Muslim community with calls to take off the hijab and conform to social norms. And then there’s his son, a wayward romantic who falls hard for Anneka.
The tension builds throughout the story, which is cleverly divided into sections told from a different character’s perspective, which gives the reader a much-needed insight into their motives. The integration of Twitter hashtags and news stories is polished and adds a new modernised layer to the retelling of an ancient story.
It is hard to fault the novel, although at times Parvaiz does feel underdeveloped and his storyline a little rushed.
This book is an eye-opener for the majority of people that live a life of privilege, never considering the items of a suitcase, skin colour, browser history or family’s mistakes could be misinterpreted as an indicator of terrorism. “Did you or your brother stop to think about those of us with passports that look like toilet paper to the rest of the world, who spend our whole lives being so careful we don’t give anyone a reason to reject our visa applications. Don’t stand next to this guy, don’t follow that guy on Twitter, don’t download that Noam Chomsky book.”
Home Fire is a powerful, unapologetic and uncomfortable read. But what is most uncomfortable? The fact that the story told in these pages could so easily be the Daily Mail’s current top news story of the week.
For this reason, and so many others, this book is a must read for anyone alive today.
Rating: 4 out of 5. More of Parvaiz’s storyline would have made it to an easy 5/5. A well deserved award-winning novel.