Nothing is better than when you pick up a book and find characters so well fleshed-out that they become real people within minutes. To show a reader the Hemmingway iceberg — both top and bottom — is not a simple task, but Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire does this in the very first scene.
The book opens with a scene in which Isma Pasha, one of the novels’ protagonists, waits in a British airport while security officers interrogate her and go through her luggage. It’s a brilliant beginning because all brown people — Indian, Pakistani, Muslim, Hindu, — are likely to have encountered such checking. The genius, however, lies in Isma’s internal dialogue and reaction.
“I don’t distinguish between one Muslim and another…. Killing civilians is sinful — that’s equally true if the manner of killing is a suicide bombing… or drone strikes,” are some of her responses. All of which she has practised with her sister Aneeka in anticipation of being racially profiled.
In a flashback moment, Isma remembers how Aneeka thought her answers were too compliant and thinks: “Her sister, not quite nineteen, … knew everything about her rights and nothing about the fragility of her place in the world.”
The reader isn’t just in Isma’s world anymore. They are Isma. The scene lasts six pages, and then she rushes to catch her flight from London to Massachusetts, saying goodbye to the woman security officer “whose thumbprints were on her underwear, not allowing even a shade of sarcasm to enter her voice.”
A lot of fiction and non-fiction chronicles the post 9/11 tension between Muslim people and the Western world. I have yet to read another novel that narrates the growing anxiety as realistically, and with the urgency and succinctness that Shamsie has managed in Home Fire.
The book centres around the lives the Pasha family of which Isma is a part. She has twin siblings; their father died in Guantanamo Bay where he was detained for being a jihadi. Isma by default becomes the primary caretaker of her sister Aneeka and brother Parvaiz. The latter runs off to join an ISIS-like terrorist group in Syria.
Home Fire is an adaptation of a Greek tragedy Antigone, which was written in 441 BC by Sophocles. The retelling is noticeable first in the names of the characters: Ismene becomes Isma and so on. The novel follows the story of Antigone almost exactly, so a reader might think they will not be surprised by the story. But, take a minute to appreciate that a story which is over 2000 years old is seamlessly applied with no changes, except the ending, to a modern day, incredibly realistic story. It speaks volumes about how little human psyche has evolved.
In Massachusetts, Isma falls for a good-looking half-white, half-Pakistani man, Eamonn Lone, whose father is a conservative politician campaigning on an anti-terror platform.
Home Fire switches points of view between its protagonists: the Pashas and the Lones. The narration is seamless and the writing impeccable, so the back and forth works without confusing the reader. The structure and Shamsie’s skill as an author makes it impossible to put this novel down.
In between the protagonist’s stories, Shamsie inserts fictional excerpts from newspapers and tweets. Many writers employ this technique because as the author said in her interview with The Guardian: you can’t avoid talking about your relationship with the Internet.
In Home Fire, Shamsie has outdone herself, and every writer I have ever read who has tried to use this form of intertextuality. Using newspaper language, which she mimics to perfection, she shows how voyeuristic and vapid the media has become; on what flimsy grounds journalists base their stories; and how it wrecks the lives of the people about whom they are writing.
One such example is an article titled: How Many Parvaiz Pashas Will It Take For The Government to Wake Up! The text underneath quotes “a former classmate” who says they were not surprised by Isma’s father leaving his family to take up jihadism. The story names no source of information at all. The reader is left flummoxed at the massive divide between the headline and what is printed underneath. ‘Is this newsworthy?’ one might think. The answer is today, right now, this would likely be on page one.
Home Fire is the closest fiction can get to reality without being journalistic. It resonates with me, possibly because I was called ‘that skinny Paki girl’ all the four years I spent at a British University; because I’ve had my money checked at every store in London in case it isn’t real; because I have been stopped at airports and then only let go after the guard notices that my passport is Indian and not Pakistani; or possibly because ‘you look Muslim,’ is a line I’ve heard too many times to count.
I won’t give away any more about Home Fire, but it wouldn’t be right to leave out that, apart from one of the best beginnings I’ve read in recent years, this book has a brilliant and memorable finale. It takes place on live television.
Home Fire’s story is relevant, but it is Shamsie’s writing that carries this book. It is crisp yet urgent. There are no unnecessary flourishes, and no scene is pointless. In that spirit, I can sum up this review in six words: You know nothing, Booker Prize Committee.