In Sophocles’s tragic play Antigone, the protagonist must choose between obeying the law of the land in burying her brother or allowing her brother to rot without a burial. That is the basic premise of Kamila Shamsie’s latest work, Home Fire, in which she explores a storyline that leads to the protagonist Aneeka sitting with the dead body of her twin brother Parvaiz, demanding a burial for him in their homeland—the UK—and not in Pakistan from where their parents migrated many moons ago.
The build-up to this scene consists of a tight plot that revolves around three siblings living in London: the eldest Isma and the younger twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. Isma, a devout Muslim, has taken care of her younger siblings since they were 12 years old after their mother passed away. Their father, a jihadist, had abandoned the family while they were still children. It’s only when Aneeka gets busy with law school and Parvaiz flees to Raqqa, Syria, to follow in their father’s footsteps that Isma thinks of reclaiming her academic life. The second family that holds the plot in place is that of Karamat Lone, an ambitious British home secretary who migrated from Pakistan. Karamat is married to an Irish woman and has left his faith on the back burner to steadfastly climb the political ladder.
The two Pakistani emigrant families, living in culturally diametric communities in London (Wembley and Holland Park), present two faces of the Muslim population living in the West. Their paths cross when Karamat’s son Eamonn befriends the older sister and falls in love with the younger. The clichéd love triangle lends the story much of its girth through the daily lives of Isma, Eamonn and Aneeka. If one sister is gullible to the trappings of the world, the other is scheming and plotting the rescue of the only person she has loved the most.
Home Fire, longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is a stunning piece of fiction, where exhaustive research has gone into presenting north London and Raqqa to the reader in vivid detail. Shamsie’s strength lies in her strong character portrayal—Isma is dutiful, Aneeka rebellious, Parvaiz credulous and Eammon is a vagabond. All four hold together a plot that is deeply moving, one that reflects the apathy of the western world towards Muslims. The book explores the many biases that Muslims have to face on a daily basis—this is highlighted poignantly in the opening sequence of the novel when Isma, on her way to the US for further studies, has to face a long ordeal in the name of interrogation at Heathrow airport in the UK. A crafty Islamist recruiter on the prowl is another modern-day phenomenon that has been finely woven into the plot.
Home Fire is divided into five sections, with each chapter taking ahead the story through the eyes of its different characters, highlighting the inevitable choices everyone makes and the way they charter the future course of their lives. Shamsie’s writing is nuanced and leaves a powerful impact. For instance, the anguish of a Pakistani national is captured aptly in the lines “…did you or your bhe**** 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.”
Home Fire, which effortlessly moves from western Massachusetts to London and Syria to Karachi, is a thought-provoking tale. The author’s powerful prose merits special mention. In her seventh novel, Shamsie intertwines the deeply personal with the political and asks her protagonists to make difficult choices. Will love succeed over everything else or are political ambitions above family and society? Should sacrifices be borne in the name of love and honour or to protect one’s dignity and faith? These are questions that will continue to haunt readers for a long time. The book has been hailed as Shamsie’s best by many critics, but Burnt Shadows continues to be my personal favourite. Whether Home Fire makes it to the Booker shortlist is yet to be seen, but it can definitely be part of your weekend reading list.