“My own flesh and blood — dear sister, dear Ismene,
How many griefs our father Oedipus handed down!”
— Antigone, Sophocles
(tr: Robert Fagles)
London, Raqqa, Karachi, with a layover in Istanbul. These are the cities of our times — as Man Booker-longlisted author Kamila Shamsie reminds us in her seventh and most arresting work yet. Though the novel begins in Amherst, Massachusetts, with Isma — a sober, prematurely aged young woman — the sleepy town and the earnest PhD student soon give way to the age-old clash between the lived realities of ordinary people and the all-effacing power of state and government. And still, Home Fire is not just another fashionable novel written to waltz in time with today’s breaking news, or to woo the 21st century’s major metropolises. It is, at its heart, a deeply felt work about migrant men and women and the never-ending, exhausting drama of being a hyphenated citizen in the West.
Shamsie’s last two novels, Burnt Shadows and A God in Every Stone, laid out a terrifying yet oddly bearable solitude that women must endure and eventually embrace in the contemporary metropolis, be it Karachi or London. Both cities turn up in Home Fire, but very differently from their earlier versions. In this novel, London is the battleground for belonging. Shamsie takes us from the warm, multi-ethnic and, on occasion, dark streets of Wembley to the serenity of Notting Hill, right up till the edge of the city where we feel the harsh white lights of an interrogation room at Heathrow Airport and the security pat-down of a young Muslim woman. In Karachi, Shamsie unromantically reminds us of sunsets that “bruise the sky,” of the “hurling, pelting wind” of a dust storm and of the opportunists that join causes they know and care nothing of.
Isma and her siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, grow up in Wembley, in the kind of home where there is “Arabic calligraphy on the wall”, “carpeted stairs”, “plastic flowers in a vase” and “the scent of spices despite there being nothing on the stove.” Eamonn, the son of the Pakistani-origin British Home Secretary Karamat Lone, walks into their lives from the manicured and affluent Notting Hill. As much as Isma and the twins try to forget, their days are haunted by their father’s past as an extremist fighter and his death at Bagram prison in Afghanistan. When Eamonn comes into Aneeka’s life, he has already learned about her father from Isma, but it is Aneeka who has to break the news to him that her twin Parvaiz has made his way to “the Caliphate”, or the war-torn city of Raqqa controlled by the militant group calling itself the Islamic State (IS). Even as Aneeka finds herself in a battle against the only place she can call home, Eamonn is drawn into a battle against blood itself: on the one side is his father who has long ago disavowed his Muslim and Pakistani descent, aligning himself against migrants and for security, and on the other is Aneeka, his great love and fiancée, who is desperate for “justice” even if it goes against the law.
A modern retelling of an ancient classic spotlights today’s multicultural world caught up in the web of racism, terrorism and social injustice
Signature Shamsie: the female characters — Aneeka, Isma, Lone’s Irish-American wife Terry, even the benign elderly neighbour Aunty Naseem — all are nothing short of fierce. Each one has been separately devastated in the wake of decisions made by the men in her life; Isma, Aneeka and Naseem by Parvaiz, Terry by Lone, yet the women of Home Fire claw and fight their way through with whatever means are available to them.
At the Karachi launch of Shamsie’s last novel, I quizzed her briefly on the recurrence of the compelling yet solitary female characters that had begun to appear in her later works: Hiroko in Burnt Shadows, Vivian in A God in Every Stone. Shamsie, in her usual stoic manner, responded quite simply: “The truth is, most women end up solitary because most women lose their husbands… you’re far more likely than a man to end up solitary; it’s simply a fact and strange that fiction doesn’t recognise it more.”
In Home Fire, though, the nature of solitude takes on new meaning, this time for both men and women. There is Isma, burdened by responsibility, aged by loss, and yet somehow comfortable and resigned to life. The samosa-frying widow, Aunty Naseem, populates her days by taking in young tenants and by her kindnesses to strangers. There is a has-it-all such as Aneeka — beautiful, intelligent and on her way to a great career, and who, despite having friends (we hear mention of a Gita) acts alone. Unlike the women of Shamsie’s earlier novels for whom the world was still a better place, the women of Home Fire wrestle and spar with the world around them, against the terrible grief that this world holds for them and against the fortunes dealt out to them, not by God, not by Allah, but by the men that surround them.
These are the lonely young men such as Parvaiz who want to make music, but end up as recruits for militant organisations, seduced by stories of their fathers who seem like exotic gods and make everything — jobs, sisters, “Mo Farah at the Olympics, Aunty Naseem’s commemorative cake tin from the Queen’s Jubilee” — pale and grey in comparison. As the spectre of his unburied father haunts him by way of Farooq, an IS recruiter and fighter, Parvaiz gives in, renaming himself Muhammad Bin Bagram as he flies to a mythical land of milk and honey and beautiful women. They are also men such as Lone — nicknamed the Lone Wolf by his political party — a self-professed atheist and political hawk who, in trying times, recites the Ayat-ul Kursi for solace. Even a man such as Eamonn, whose sympathies ultimately come to lie with Isma and Aneeka, is emasculated by his financial dependence on wealthy parents and the indecision that such situations so often breed. The men of Home Fire are weak and angry: at their pasts, at the abject nature of a migrant’s life in the West and at anything and everything that threatens them with the possibility of having to leave the place they call home. And in their flaccid anger lies their ruin.
Shamsie’s debt to Sophocles, that master of tragedy from Ancient Greece, is evidenced throughout the novel, ranging from the names of the characters (particularly striking — and witty — is Karamat Lone, named for Creon, the brutal dictator-king of Thebes in the original Antigone) to the grander implications of the plot itself. She could not have picked a more fitting work to adapt, both for the times we live in and in terms of her own extraordinary strengths as a much-needed teller of the stories of women in our times.
The reviewer is assistant professor, English and Comparative Literature, at LUMS
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 10th, 2017