More book club reading. This one was an interesting experience – the author’s intent became obvious to me only after I finished the novel and read the acknowledgements at the back, which recast the whole thing in a very different light. If I remembered my classic Greek literature better, I’d probably have realised sooner that Home Fire is a modern-day retelling of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. This made me understand the author’s story choices better, while also making it easier to pinpoint why, overall, the book didn’t quite work for me. There’s still a lot to like about it – the prose is simple and lucid, it explores the timely topics like terrorism and anti-Muslim attitudes with insight and intelligence, most characters are well-drawn and their wildly different life choices are easy to understand and empathise with. But in the end, it did feel less than the sum of its parts.
The novel is split between several character viewpoints, and it opens with Isma, a young UK-born Muslim woman with Pakistani roots whose family lives under the dark shadow of their jihadist father, who after a long military activity was imprisoned and died on his way to Guantánamo. Isma, the oldest sister, raised her twin siblings after their mother’s death, and as the story begins, she’s ready to leave the UK for the United States, to pursue her dream of studying. While in the USA, Isma meets Eamonn, the son of an influential British politician who has left his Muslim faith behind. Isma and Eamonn develop a connection, but her growing romantic feelings remain unrequited as Eamonn is instead drawn instantly to the photograph of Aneeka, Isma’s beautiful young sister. It also becomes clear that something has gone very wrong with Parvaiz, Isma’s younger brother, who’s been affected by their father’s legacy the most.
The course of the novel undergoes major shifts throughout; at first it reads as a possible romantic triangle with the complications of societal prejudice and cultural incompatibility. Then it becomes a story of a young man who, in a desperate search for a father figure, becomes trapped in a situation he was not prepared for. Then in the later stages, as the parallels to the classic Greek tragedy really come to the front, the novel deals with the conflict between law and conscience, state and family, and the legal sense of right versus a more humane, deeper sense of right.
While the writer’s ambition in creating this multi-faceted story of love, duty, religion, politics and family is admirable, the novel is not without faults. Ultimately, I think the decision to consciously draw on Antigone is to the story’s detriment, as it felt strong enough on its own without being shoehorned into Sophocles’ tragedy. There’s a jarring quality to the ending which comes down to a single explosive moment; it would be perfectly at home in a melodrama operating in bold, broad strokes, but it’s at odds with the nuance and complexity that precedes it in the book. The switch between the perspectives means that some compelling characters get dropped unceremoniously or appear very late in the story. I particularly missed Isma, whose wry perspective on being a perpetually cautious and self-conscious Muslim in the Western world is one of the most illuminating aspects of the book.
My biggest gripe however is that Aneeka, who by right should be the heart and soul of the book, remains a frustratingly distant, opaque figure even when she gets her own chapter. The author makes a bold stylistic choice to present much of Aneeka’s side of the story with poetic ruminations on grief and media extracts, including a sneering tabloid article dubbing her Aneeka ‘Knickers’ Pasha. It’s a gamble that doesn’t really pay off and the character feels as if enclosed behind a wall of glass, leaving me annoyed with Aneeka’s dramatic antics more than anything else, which I’m sure is quite contrary to the author’s intent.
Despite my issues with Home Fire, I’d still read more of Shamsie’s work, as much of her writing here is simply wonderful and the perspective on the contemporary world she provides is interesting.