‘You know what fathers and sons are like.’
‘Not really, no.’
‘They’re our guides into manhood, for starters […] We want to be like them; we want to be better than them. We want to be the only people in the world who are allowed to be better than them.’
Home Fire begins from the perspective of one of the women. Isma is about to miss her flight to America where she has a place to do a PhD in sociology at Amherst. She’s been detained by immigration in the UK who search and interrogate her. ‘He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.’ Eventually she’s allowed to leave but not before she’s missed her flight.
Eventually Isma arrives in Massachusetts where she meets Eamonn Lone, son of the British politician Karamat Lone. Isma recognises Eamonn. When she was younger there was a photograph of the local cricket team in the house of a family friend. Karamat Lone was on it. Isma overheard her grandmother telling someone of the cruelty he’d shown their family when he could’ve acted otherwise. However, Isma doesn’t reveal to Eamonn that she knows who he is and a relationship begins to develop between them.
Isma’s family situation is complicated. Her mother and grandmother died within a year, leaving her to parent her twelve-year-old twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. Aneeka is at home in London, attending college. Parvaiz has left, occasionally letting Aneeka know via Skype messages that he’s okay.
Shamsie intertwines the two families in order to explore relationships, love and loyalty. Through the range of characters, she creates a complex view of what it means to be a Muslim, exploring different perspectives within Muslim communities. This is at its most stark with Karamat Lone and Aneeka. Lone is known as Lone Wolf due to his championing by the tabloids who see him ‘as a lone crusader taking on the backwardness of British Muslims’. Not long after his appointment as Home Secretary, he returns to the secondary school he attended in Bradford to give a speech.
‘You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you. But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours. And look at all you miss out on because of it.’
Aneeka wears the hijab, prays and is teetotal. She’s also about to enter Lone’s life and have a profound effect.
Home Fire is a retelling of the Greek tragedy Antigone. While a number of recent retellings of Greek and Shakespearean plays have fallen short, Shamsie pulls this one off with aplomb. The novel uses the key themes and follows the structure of the source play but its characters, settings and ideas are contemporary and highly relevant. As the story moves from character to character – Isma, Eamonn, Parvaiz, Anneka, Karamat – the sense of urgency builds. Home Fire is a compelling, tightly crafted novel; I read it in one sitting.