Kamila Shamsie’s gut-punching update of the story of Antigone is all about competing loyalties. There’s loyalty to family, to country, to faith, to moral principles, to the law, to love. These loyalties are in tension, and each character balances those loyalties in different ways. Shamsie presents each of the main characters’ perspectives in turn, letting us see exactly what moves them all and experiencing the difficulty of finding an answer that will leave everyone whole.
Home Fire begins with Isma, newly arrived in America to pursue a PhD. Her sister, Aneeka, is back in London. Their brother Parvaiz, Aneeka’s twin, is in Raqqa, having been recruited into ISIS. A chance meeting brings Isma in contact with Eamonn, the son of the new British home secretary, Karamat Lone. Having been politically burned in his career before for being visibly Muslim, Karamat takes a hard line against ISIS and anyone affiliated with it or other Islamist terror groups. When Eamonn falls in love with Aneeka, the two families end up on a course toward disaster.
As you can see, this is a complex premise, with no clear and easy answers. Shamsie doesn’t ever pretend that ISIS is anything other than the evil that it is, but she allows readers to see how people get sucked into it and how wrenching that is for their families who are trying to live peaceful lives. She also shows how challenging it is for Muslims to live in the shadow of Islamist terrorism and the suspicion it puts them under. It’s very much a story of our time.
One of the things I most appreciated about this book is that all five of the main characters are given close attention so we can see their motivations and understand them as something more than a cutout object crafted to make a point. Some might argue as to how successful the characterizations are, but I found them effective. She might have cheated slightly with her decision to keep Parvaiz out of the fighting, but I’m not sure readers could have forgiven him if he’d done more than film atrocities (and, indeed, some readers probably won’t forgive him). And there are aspects of Aneeka that I think are intentionally left a little cloudy, making the ending devastating in its ambiguity.
The prose doesn’t necessarily dazzle in the manner of some of the others on the Booker longlist, but I think it is effective, particularly in the section devoted to Aneeka. It’s on my personal shortlist, and I’ll be looking for more of her books. If you’ve read any, which do you recommend?