Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire begins in a racially fraught airport interrogation room, and ends with its final scene on television. These spaces are impersonal, distant, signifiers of a world where your actions are analysed and defined through the public sphere. In this world, family tragedy is a question of national security, a love story becomes a Public Relations disaster and hashtags begin to resemble poetry. Despite its trappings, the novel is a devastating romance written for readers living under surveillance.
“The ones we love … are enemies of the state” says the apt epigraph, taken from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. Sophocles’ play about fraternal loyalty, the pride of men and empires, and the fall of such empires is transplanted to a modern day Britain, complete with its own version of Antigone fighting for her brother’s honourable burial, and the proud leader Creon and his conflict with his son, Haemon.
Shamsie has always been occupied with the uncertain yet unbreakable bonds that govern family life. Both her earlier books, In the City by the Sea and Kartography, have younger generations grappling with the consequences of decisions made by the older generations of their family. Her 2009 novel Burnt Shadows brought this tension into a wider world, spinning relationships across cultures and continents.
Home Fire too is epic in its scope while being Shamsie’s most urgent work of fiction: taking on timely issues and giving them a satisfying emotional core.
The story starts with Isma, the eldest of three siblings from a British-Muslim-Pakistani family, travelling to the US to start her long-deferred dream PhD. Her younger sister, Aneeka, is studying law in the United Kingdom. Parvaiz, Aneeka’s twin, is a source of conflict between the sisters: pushed by the legacy of an absentee jihadist father, he left them to join the media wing of ISIL. Headstrong Aneeka is determined to save him while the reserved, careful Isma just wants to protect their orphaned family from further tragedy. When Isma meets Eamonn, the handsome (and half-Pakistani origin) son of a powerful figure in British politics, Aneeka sees her opportunity to help their brother.
In Aneeka’s and Eamonn’s secretive and passionate love affair, the novel finds its emotional core. Eamonn’s flat, fancy and lush, is one of the few truly private spaces in the novel, and here they conduct their meetings. Aneeka is at first enigmatic and distant, Eamonn is enraptured. Even in their cocoon, Shamsie inserts their obvious differences: she is a hijab-wearing Muslim, with a controversial family history, he is the privileged, decidedly irreligious son of one of Britain’s most powerful families. And yet, after they make love, “he [cups] his hands and lifts them to his face, breathing in [her scent]. His personal act of prayer.”
Their scenes bring both humour and an awareness of the impending pressures of their conflicting worlds. As she gets ready for prayer, he jokes “‘You had to put on a b** for God?’” He thinks about his father exhorting Muslims to “integrate” into British society: “his father’s voice saying ‘don’t set yourself apart in the way you dress’ played over a video grab of Aneeka standing up from her prayer mat and walking into his embrace.”
Like their budding love story, Shamsie builds up each event to a crescendo, with the looming threat of impending disaster. To read Home Fire is to slowly prepare yourself for an invasion akin to men in dark suits breaking into a garden, trampling flowers and crushing the grass: the state forcing its way into intimacy.
Eamonn’s father, the British Home Secretary Karamat Lone, is the Creon of this story, and also the agent of the state with his own identity issues. His Muslim-ness is treated as both a political tool, and a curse. One of the most compelling characters in the novel, Lone is presented as a loving father, and ruthless politician, humoring his lovesick son and also calculating the number of holes their situation would punch into his political shield.
He represents the conflict facing the Sadiq Khans of Britain. How much should one wield one’s embattled religious identity in the public space? How much rejection of one’s roots is outright condemnation of those roots? Often called “coconut”, lackey of the British state, Lone is a controversial figure for Home Fire’s British Muslim community.
And then there is the hapless Parvaiz, sitting far away in the media wing of ISIL, who realises he has bitten off more than he can chew. Parvaiz finds inspiration in sound editing, recording the atmosphere around him in detail and in these moments the reader finds snippets of a sensitive, emotional boy caught between his protective sisters and his neighbourhood, and the heroic adventures in a larger world he is woefully unprepared to face. His conversion to extremism is one of the novel’s weakest points, where the vacuum left by his father seems to be enough to force him to leave his devoted sisters.
But, this novel also takes pains to develop sons’ insecurities in living up to their father’s legacies; Eamonn and Parvaiz both see their fathers as larger-than-life figures, they both perceive themselves as falling short. Parvaiz however, tries to live up to that legacy and his actions cause the central tragedy in the story.
As each character’s decisions are forced into the public realm, events speed up, reflection is left behind in Eamonn’s apartment. The reader races forward with the characters seeking to extricate themselves and each other from the web of international scrutiny.
Antigone’s fate is written the moment she defies state authority. To love someone who is an enemy of the state, is to sentence yourself to a tragic end. Love in Home Fire is also a sentencing, the beginning of self-destruction.
Publishing Year: 2017