Home Fire is a modern retelling of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. Told from five points of view, Shamsie aims to give a holistic overview of the events that lead the characters to their inevitable conclusion. You don’t need to know the source material to read this novel but knowing its a Greek tragedy is enough to work out that things are not going to go well.
The novel begins with Isma, a Muslim woman, missing her flight to Boston as she gets interrogated at Heathrow airport. After sacrificing years to looking after her younger siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, she finally has the opportunity to recommence her academic life having won a scholarship to an American university. Responsibility fell upon Isma’s shoulders after her mother died. Her father, absent for most of her childhood, left the family to become a jihadist, a legacy that has recently caught up with Isma’s family since Parvaiz has chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps.
While in the US, Isma meets Eamonn in a coffee shop. The handsome mixed race son of a British Muslim politician who has divided opinion through his hardline comments, seen by many Muslims as pandering to the anti-Islamists, Eamonn is directionless, unsure what to do with his life. He doesn’t realise that Isma already has a reason to despise his father and she keeps this knowledge to herself, surprised to find that she enjoys his company. She starts to hope that their relationship might develop but when Eamonn visits her at home and sees a photograph of sister Aneeka on a shelf, his reaction shows her that as far as he is concerned Isma will only be a friend.
What I loved about this book is the way Shamsie tackles a difficult subject matter. Rather than viewing Parvaiz the jihadi from afar, she shows us (albeit it briefly – one of the slight flaws of the novel) his radicalisation. From being approached in London by a recruiter, we see flashes of life in Syria and his growing realisation that he was an easy mark, his father’s past used to reel him in. Meanwhile back in London, his actions have split his family. Aneeka refuses to speak to Isma once she discovers that Isma was the one who alerted the police to their brother’s departure. Even when Isma points out that she did it to save Aneeka’s future career in the law, her sister cannot forgive her.
Each character in the novel has a specific role to play and this is where a few flaws creep in, at least in my opinion. Because their fate was already mapped out and the story is draped over a pre-existing plot, not all of their actions felt honest. Because we moved amongst the viewpoints of five different people, it also felt that there wasn’t enough time spent with each. I enjoyed reading each section but fifty or so pages doesn’t give great insight into a person’s actions. I felt this perhaps the most in the last section, following Eamonn’s father, Karamat Lone.
What I found quite interesting, and only noticed afterwards, is the power that each woman has compared to the men. Aneeka seduces Eamonn in an attempt to save her brother, Parvaiz, whose emotional weakness was exploited by the IS recruiters. Both Eamonn and Parvaiz are in limbo, young men with no clear career path. Even Karamat Lone, Home Secretary, is in a precarious position. Having turned his back on his religion he realises too late that even with that sacrifice he will always be considered as ‘other’. His wife is a successful businesswoman in her own right; his treatment of Eamonn when he discovers the relationship with Aneeka drives her away.
For me, this is easily a ‘one-sitting’ book. Pacy and thrilling, there were few standout sentences but the storytelling is sublime. I just wish the last few pages hadn’t gone a tad Homeland.