Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie, Bloomsbury Circus, 2017
Before I read this book I was familiar with the traditional story of Antigone. There is Sophocles’s classic rendering of the tragedy, with Racine’s version in French. The key protagonists are sisters Ismene and Antigone and their brother Polynices. He is the enemy of the state whose death challenges Antigone to defy the authorities so she can bury her brother, an act which in itself is proscribed by the state.
In Kamila Shamsie’s breathtaking, audacious retake, classical Greece is replaced by London’s Wembley, home to immigrant Pakistani families, now with British citizenship. The two sisters are Isma and Aneeka, and Aneeka’s twin brother is Parvaiz. Children of a jihadist father who died on the way to Guantanamo, they are known to the Secret Services, and aware of all their online activity being monitored and checked in case they follow in his footsteps.
The two girls are absorbed in study and further education, but Parvaiz, directionless and watching from the sidelines as his sisters develop their independent lives, becomes a classic recruit for Islamist extremists. He is persuaded to leave the UK for Syria; when his elder sister Isma learns of this she informs the Home Office, so as to protect Aneeka and herself, but in doing so causes an irreconcilable rift between them.
In parallel with the family’s unfolding drama, another British Asian family is drawn into the story. Karamat Lone is the atheist Home Secretary with an uncompromising policy towards dual-nationality jihadists; those who leave the UK to fight with terrorists are stripped of their UK citizenship. Aneeka starts an affair with his son Eamonn in the hope that he will be able to act as leverage with Karamat for Parvaiz to return to the UK. Parvaiz realises his mistake as soon as he arrives in Raqqa, but his path home seems impossible in the present climate.
What happens to Parvaiz in his attempt to escape from the horror of the terrorists’ actions is inevitable, but it is here that Aneeka takes up the mantle of Antigone. All she wants is to bring her brother’s body back to the UK for burial. For the Home Secretary, this is a red line and no longer allowed by law, so in a blaze of publicity and social media, Aneeka takes the struggle with her to Pakistan. If she cannot bring Parvaiz back, then she will go to him in the most public way imaginable. Eamonn and his father are then forced to make their own desperate decisions.
Home Fire is an extraordinary novel. It is bang up to the moment, managing to express love, fear, bravery, compassion, all without either demonising or glorifying the central characters. The images in the last section of the book are vivid and terrifying. Shamsie’s writing penetrates deep into the human condition, exploring both rational and irrational behaviour. It shows what can happen in a society where loyalties are divided, and offers no easy solutions, or judgements on behaviour.