Hello everyone!!!! I have just finished reading Kamila Shamsie’s 2017 Women’s Fiction Prize Winning novel, Home Fire, and fucking hell IT IS SO AMAZING!!! A story of love VS betrayal, of state VS family, and of East Vs West in the ‘melting-pot’ of modern Britain. It is loneliness- what to do with the unbearableness of it: sink into the comfort of hostility and proclaim that there must be revenge, or to reach out through the pain, be honest with it and fight for what you need to survive?
Based off the ancient Greek myth of Antigone reworked for the modern day climate of Islamophobia- how it causes terrorism, and then even more Islamophobia, like a grim merry-go round of hate- this devastating novel has love and betrayal at its core; how we cope with each emotion, and which one should prevail overall if we are to hold on to one another. I had to keep stopping reading so that I could process all the conflicting passions without losing myself, and it is a book that will tear your heart not into two pieces, but a scattering of a million shards.
Shamsie’s novel is told through narrating the experiences of 5 main characters, all British- Pakistani citizens, all woven to put together a larger narrative that will draw them together whilst tearing them apart. This plot of tragedy and love is condensed into a seemingly anonymous Wembley household; the unseeming characters progressively more and more embroiled into a conclusion that reaches far beyond what they ever could imagine.
It starts with Isma, an intelligent but world-worn woman and elder sister/ mother to her two twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. I think Isma is one of my favourite characters, she is very good at balancing acts, of gently toeing the line between obeying the law to avoid further pain, and standing up for what she really believes in. Love of her family is Isma’s motive for pretty much all she does. Aneeka also is fuelled by love of her family, but without the forgivingness or subtlety of her sister- Aneeka’s love is pretty much all for her brother, not the mothering and hence oppressive Isma. Aneeka and Parvaiz’ twinhood is evoked so beautifully it makes the forces tearing them apart so cruel and callous I could hardly bear it; but whereas Isma’s love aims to bring everyone back together, Aneeka’s love is driven for one purpose only: to bring Parvaiz home from the terrorists he has been groomed into joining.
However, Aneekas love at first solely meant for Parvaiz actually multiplies in another direction. Aneeka falls in love with a man- Eamonn- her sister first met and sent her way- but this is not a tale of sisters fighting over a man ( it does still make me really sad that Isma is so alone in the book, it would have been nice for her to have at least one solace for herself). Eamonn is the son of the Home Secretary, and Aneeka, at first using him as a vessel for escape to bring Parvaiz home, ends up finding another escape for herself, away from the extremes of loyalty demanded by religion and state. Eamonn’s family are rich, integrated and push the piety of Islam to the back of their minds. Aneeka’s family are poor, derided by the general public for their devotion to their home land and religion. The contrasts are striking, which makes their falling in love only more bitter-sweet with the subtext of Parvaiz between them.
Shamsie evokes the character of Parvaiz before and after his defection to ‘the enemy state’ (the book’s main debate is essentially of loyalty to a state: which comes first, the state of law or love?) with a cleverness that doesn’t exempt him from criticism, but goes into detailed explanations of why what has happened has happened. Yes, he switched himself off and is complicit in the horrors of the Caliphate world in which he finds himself- but if that was the only way to survive, wouldn’t you dance for the devil, too? His choice to abandon his sisters, despite one of them literally being his other half, seems selfish and awful to the extremes. But, again, if you constantly felt alienated as the lone boy without a father in a world ran by women, at an age where you want to talk but don’t feel like anyone wants you… what I’m trying to say is that sadness makes people desperate, and desperation makes people do un-explainable things.
I don’t want to say what happens in the last scene, but it is a conclusion at once satisfying in its inevitability of plot tragedy, yet still discordant, gut-wrenchingly sad for all parties involved. It is reconciliation through grief, a reckoning that will make you want to simultaneously punch every bigot in the face (and by bigot, I don’t just mean Tommy Robinson clones, also the unflinchingly wicked men in suits at Westminster, too) and weep, clinging onto whoever love is to you.
I recommend this book very highly. It makes your brain think hard about the climate of xenophobia, islamophobia and prejudice that seems to govern politics today, and gives your heart a work out- that is never a bad thing!
“The language of violence, spoken by the powerful of all nations, erased distinctions beneath the surface. Two girls walked past, laughing, uninhibited. The sound- continuing on, burrowing down from the girls’ throats to their bellies- was more remarkable than bracelets or wrists. Perhaps surface was all there was to fight for. He remembered how it felt to float on a surface of freedom and safety, to feel himself buoyed up by it, and longing tugged at his heart…”