Bloomsbury, 264 pages
“I have been a stranger here in my own land: All my life” –
Antigone, in the play by Sophocles, b circa 496 BC
It takes nerve and a steady hand for a writer to adapt a classic. The pitfalls are many – the Mahabharata, and Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, resist poorly imagined or loose adaptations, sloughing those off like discarded skins. The more powerful and stirring the original, the higher the risk for the writer. The adaptation must have its own inner strength and spirit, and a sound reason for reaching back through time to the original.
With six novels at her back, Kamila Shamsie has taken greater and greater risks, displaying a canny mountaineer’s approach to her craft, and a ferocious conscience, perhaps as necessary as heart, or skill, in these times. In her fifth novel, Burnt Shadows (2009), the terrain stretched from Japan in World War II to India before Partition, and post 9/11 Afghanistan. In her sixth, A God In Every Stone (2014), her narrative cycled back from Ypres to the time of the Persian king Darius I.
It is no surprise to her readers that she would be as ambitious in her seventh novel, Home Fire, and it gives nothing away to say that this has a beautiful closing sentence, a stark, haunting final chord to a rich and disturbing book. Home Fire, longlisted for the Booker, has an immediacy and accessibility that should make it widely popular.
Two Pakistani families, one living in Wembley, one in Holland Park, are brought together by coincidence, young love, their fates rapidly entangled with one another. They couldn’t be further apart.
In Wembley, Isma Pasha has parented and provided for her two siblings, the twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, raised them in the gap created by an absentee father with a stained past, the sudden deaths of others who might have looked after them.
She will commit one of the first major acts of betrayal in a novel, and a moral universe, shaped by abandonment, fractured or misplaced loyalties on one hand and the constant search for an elusive security and a sense of belonging denied to a Muslim family, even a British Muslim family, on the other. Aneeka and Parvaiz are connected by a bond stronger than that between most twins – survivors, living through the absences and deaths around them, signing their emails to each other in joking patterns, one ‘Senti’, the other ‘Mental’.
Eamonn, the son of the charismatic rising politician Karamat Lone, inhabits a starkly different life, even his name a source of amusement in Wembley – “an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name – Ayman became Eamonn so that people would know the father had integrated”. His father, the Lone Wolf, is, in the eyes of Isma and Aneeka, and many other immigrants, a familiar type, a man who made his compromises without compunction, choosing his side in his rise to power: “sellout, coconut, opportunist, traitor, the new Home Secretary”.
Karamat Lone, suave, favouring windowless basement offices – “he was at his most productive when there was no glimmer of natural sunlight” – precipitates a tragedy when he moves with typically ruthless efficiency to shut down a politically disastrous relationship.
Early on, an inept attempt at a joke by Eamonn goes awry, and he offers a clumsy apology to his companion:
“Jesus. I mean, sorry. That came out really badly. I meant, it must be difficult to be Muslim in the world these days.”
“I’d find it more difficult to not be Muslim,” she said.”
Home Fire fearlessly tackles large themes, in the compact space of 264 pages and the taut, fast-paced plot only makes Shamsie’s background riffs on identity, justice, belonging and betrayal seem more urgent and sharply contemporary. One family handles being “Muslim in the world” by eliding it, taking on the protective coloration of non-belonging and privilege – giving their child the dubious luxury of not knowing Urdu, never needing to visit Pakistan, shrinking identity down to the phrase “from a Muslim background”. The author allows herself a tart aside: “what they always said about him, as though Muslimness was something he had boldly stridden away from”.
The other family must prove their Britishness, their loyalty, constantly, but does not deny itself the “depth of immersion” into religion, knowing that wearing hijab might mean that they’ll be singled out, aware on the Internet of the risks of GWM, Googling While Muslim. In a quiet moment early on, Shamsie describes the act of prayer itself, one of the many unshowy passages that make Home Fire so compelling:
“At first the words were just a language she didn’t know, but as she continued, closing her eyes to shut out the world, they burrowed inside her, flared into light, disspelled the darkness. And then the light softened, diffused, enveloping her in the peace that comes from knowing your own powerlessness.”
From Aneeka to Eamonn and Parvaiz, Karamat Lone to Isma, every character in Home Fire has moments of similar interiority. It is these small spaces, when the reader is alone with each character, that allow for a pause, a break from the remorseless march of events, the ripples from one bad decision, one moment of commitment to the wrong cause spinning out into unstoppable tragedy.
For those who know Sophocles’ Antigone, the plot of Home Fire will not come as a surprise, and even the final setting will carry a hint of familiarity, the old legend dovetailing neatly into contemporary Karachi. A space away from the British Deputy High Commission, “there was a park lined with banyan trees, their ancient overground roots more enduring than wire rusting in the sea air or guns that jammed with dust or the calculations made today by politicians looking to the next elections”.
But the choice of Antigone goes far beyond shallow resemblances. Sophocles’ cycle of plays pits brother against brother, warns of the taint of bloodlines, one generation’s iniquity lying like a curse over the heads of the next. Against the virtue of order, the power of the state, the necessity of loyalty to the state, Sophocles set the clashing virtue of justice, and the claim made by familial love, anarchy pitted against tyranny, the individual versus the authorities. Home Fire sets sister against sister – but also, son against father.
“There he sat, his father’s son. It didn’t matter if they were on this or that side of the political spectrum, or whether the fathers were absent or present, or if someone else had loved them better, loved them more: in the end they were always their father’s sons.” This is said of Eamonn, but it could as well be said for one other character.
Might a man who, prompted by a misplaced desire for justice and vengeance, goes off to become part of ISIS’s media wing in Raqqa command some of your pity, even the state’s pity? Not even if he discovers, along with the bright blue beanbag and the peaceful garden of the house in Raqqa, that the promised Caliphate is another kind of prison, where a man cannot reveal his true thoughts, where the soundtrack to beheadings and executions must be finetuned, where his comrades are also his watchers and his guards? Perhaps neither pity nor redemption is available, or possible, or for some, even desirable. Justice, then? Would such a man be entitled at least to justice?
A simpler question: what do you allow into the city? What do you leave to rot outside the gates? Who is decently mourned, whose death is left unexamined?
Antigone never disappeared from modern view. Seamus Heaney wrote his version, The Burial At Thebes, in part as a response to the Iraq War. “Just as Creon forced the citizens of Thebes into an either/or situation in relation to Antigone, the Bush administration in the White House was using the same tactic to forward its argument for war on Iraq.” In his first version of Antigone, Bertolt Brecht planned to begin with a Prelude, set at the end of the war in 1945. The sisters would fall out over the fate of their brother, a deserter, and an officer of the SS. He abandoned this idea, opening with the figure of Tiresias instead.
It may have been unremarkable at the time, given the horrors of the war itself, but one detail from Brecht’s 1948 production stuck in my mind. In John Fuegi’s book on Bertolt Brecht, he sets down the incident. Caspar Neher did the sketches for Antigone, the actors performing within a square playing area, marked by four posts on which hung the skulls of four horses. Brecht and Neher were said to have placed an order for the heads of four slaughtered horses, which they boiled clean in large laundry tubs. They painted the cleaned skulls red, carrying the burial ground spirit of the original intact through history.
Shamsie is an unflinching writer, but not one with a taste for the grotesque. She handles her brutal subjects, from beheadings and incarcerations to rotting corpses, without going into cinematic detail. This is a very different approach from Arundhati Roy’s unsparing evocation of Kashmir’s bloody rivers and prisons, or Neel Mukherjee’s anguished description of the damage inflicted on a dancing bear, in his recent novel A State Of Freedom, where both writers report immersively, as if they had access to the torturer’s camera.
Shamsie doesn’t elide violence, but her focus is elsewhere. It’s masked by the deft descriptions of London, of family life, and young love, blooming out of attraction and difference, but Home Fire might also be a great novel for the surveillance age.
In the first scene, Isma is interrogated at the airport for two hours, her interrogator wanting to know “her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites”. No one in Home Fire has privacy beyond a point – the media pounces upon love affairs, reconstruct Karamat Lone’s life to fit first one narrative and then another, homes are invaded, personal habits, Internet browsing habits, held up to the light, ISIS monitors behaviour, reactions, thoughts, and the television channels and cameras capture the last scene.
This is both a strength and a weakness – Home Fire, written with such immediacy, is definitely a novel for the times, with its Twitter hashtags, its deft imitation of TV newsreaders, but that also means that it might date rapidly. Or perhaps this isn’t such a weakness. If Antigone was timeless, Home Fire captures many of the swirling, swiftly changing currents of its own time.
“What was the point of surrounding yourself with other versions of yourself all the time?” one of the characters thinks. By adding shading and complexity to stereotypes, Home Fire makes a compelling case for seeking out all that is different from, and alien to, the world you know. In the programme notes to his 1948 production, Brecht wrote a poem to Antigone:
“You who turn away, I know
How you feared death, but
Still more you fear
Once the smoke from the sacrificial fires settle, that’s what lingers: characters seeking not death, but a worthier life, settling for death if that’s all that’s available.
(Published in Biblio, 2017, please do not reproduce without permission.)