Ever since the protests following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses three decades ago, the landscape of Muslim Britain has become an increasingly troubled one. With the 7/7 bombings, 9/11, Guantanamo and then the recent attacks by European Muslims in various cities, the narrative of ‘us and them’ and ‘with us or against us’ has become increasingly stronger and more emphatic.
It is in this polarised landscape that Kamila Shamsie has set her latest novel, Home Fire, a story that is based on the Sophocles play Antigone and which, with its story of war, love and loyalty, is as full of raw emotion as any Greek tragedy.
Sophocles’s play tells the story of a conflict within one family around the matter of loyalty and treason. Shamsie does not use family in the literal sense but extends it to community: the individuals in conflict are not relatives but they are British Muslims, they belong to immigrant families, they are individuals who always have a question mark against their names in any assessment of loyalty to their country.
It is this question mark, this suspicion that defines how the novel’s protagonists decide to live their lives and how they feel they should act and react. One family whose lives are lived out in the shadow of a jihadi history becomes involved with another more secular and mainstream version of themselves. The fact that the father in the latter family is a politician who becomes Home Secretary means that he has the power to decide the fate of the other family.
But all the confusion of love and loyalty and identity gets in the way of policy and ‘principled decisions’, and eventually wreaks havoc in the families.
The families are broadly speaking hijabi, head covering, praying Muslims and non-hijabi, non-head covering non-praying Muslims. The fate of one family is decided by the head of the other family: Karamat Lone, known to his detractors as ‘lone wolf’ (portrayed as a politician in the London mayor Sadiq Khan mould), the hard-working son of immigrants who has a strong belief in serving the country he regards as home, and to which he feels a debt of gratitude for the opportunity it has provided.
Shamsie has created an interesting character here, one whose arrogance and self assurance one might find slightly repellent, but with whose pain and dilemmas one can really sympathise with — as he has to fight on so many different fronts (in his political life, his religion and origins are never not issues).
Shamsie reimagines the Greek tragedy without being restricted by the original play. The politics of death and burial, national loyalty and appropriate punishment remain key dramatic issues but it’s all set in a 21st century world of visas, airport security, Skype calls and jihadi radicalisation.
The author refers Sophocles by retaining the resonance of some of the names — Isma for Ismene, Eamonn for Haemon, Karamat for Creon. But Shamsie’s story is also about discovery — about finding new, often disturbing aspects of that which seem most known: one’s parents, siblings and friends, one’s city and country, oneself and one’s emotions.
This powerful story of war, love and loyalty is also about the tangled legacy of fathers and sons, and the easy way in which the story of a father can define the choices of sons who struggle constantly to overcome feelings of inadequacy.
Home Fire is expected to be published by mid-August but has already been long-listed for the Man Booker prize. Whether or not it makes to the shortlist (to be announced on September 13), this is an important book, and a novel that should be read and discussed.
You don’t have to like it, but you probably won’t forget it.