Review: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

UK book cover of Home Fire by Kamila ShamsieHome Fire is further evidence that Huddersfield Library is one of the best libraries I have ever had the privlege of utilising. Not only did they have two copies of Home Fire, not only was one of them featured in the ‘Staff Picks’ section, but when I opened the book, a little postcard fell out from a lady named ‘Annie,’ telling me that she loved this book and she hopes I do too. Well Annie, let’s see, shall we?

Plot summary: From the Orange and Baileys Prize-shortlisted author comes an urgent, explosive story of love and a family torn apart.

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she is finally studying in America, resuming a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London – or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream: to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to – or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

Apparently Home Fire is based on the classic play Antigone, written by Sophocles in around 441 BC. I tell you this purely as a matter of interest, as I haven’t read Antigone, so it will have bugger all bearing on my review.

So, Home Fire is told in five parts, just like (apparently) Antigone. Each part follows one of the following five people:

  • Isma, PhD student currently in the US
  • Eamonn, son of the Secretary of State
  • Parvaiz, brother to Isma, who goes off to Syria to work with ISIS
  • Aneeka, sister to Isma and Parvaiz
  • Karamat, Eamonn’s father, the Secretary of State who was previously a practising Muslim

First off, I found the subject matter and the issues it dealt with absolutely fascinating, the concept of the Muslim family left behind in Britain after a brother heads off to join ISIS. They have to continue with their lives amidst constant scrutiny from the State, and feelings of guilt and betrayal regarding the path their brother chose. It’s far from a unique talking point, but it’s the first book of this nature I’ve read and it really opened my eyes. I was particularly impressed with the discussion regarding Karamat Lone, a prominent politician who is disliked by a large portion of Muslims for putting aside his faith and encouraging them to ‘integrate’ into society.

The characters, which were distinctly Not-Great.

I was impressed with both Karamat and Eamonn as their perspectives gave me fresh insight to the multi-layered issues present in these circumstances. I felt that they were very ‘full’ characters and I understand their conflicting motivations and beliefs.

That said, I think characterisation was distinctly lacking in Aneeka, which is a problem considering that Home Fire essentially revolves around her. The way she acts at the end of the novel doesn’t fit with the person she is at the beginning – and we’re not talking character development, it just doesn’t make sense.  There’s no explanation as to why she would act that way. Whilst we do read her perspective, it’s brief, abstract and interspersed with news articles so it’s not all that enlightening. She’s almost meant to be a Manic Pixie Muslim Dream Girl – but I just found her to be whiny, naive and childish. Getting her proper perspective would really have helped. Also, and I’m not the right person to be commenting on this, but surely her casual sexual actions are not consistent with a devout Muslim who wears the hijab and engages in morning prayers?

Each of the five perspectives were unique and provided a different viewpoint to the issues. However, in order to keep to the this-used-to-be-a-play format, it’s strictly one Act per character and then we never go back to them. It’s clever how it still manages to get Eamonn and Isma’s updated views in during the last Act – it was very subtle and I’ve only just realised how that was done as I’m writing this now. That said, I would really liked to get their actual perspectives on the newer events towards the end.

It might have helped bring some emotion into the story. Whilst it’s an exciting and interesting novel, I never felt anything, and I should have in a book like this. I cared what happened in an intellectual and political sense, but not because of the characters. I felt no hope, sadness or victory for any of the five, with the exception of possibly Karamat Lone. It might be because none of them seemed to really emotionally react to anything, aside from Aneeka, and we’ve talked about her incomprehensible reaction already. You can’t feel emotions for characters who don’t feel any themselves.

Did it HAVE to be forced into the Antigone story? Spoiler: No. No, it did not.

On reflection, I think Home Fire would have benefitted from not having the rigid constraints of having to tie in with a play from more than 2000 years ago.

I suspect Aneeka’s character was hindered by the need for her to mimic the actions of the heroine in Antigone, but unfortunately they ended up seeming unnatural and forced. Yes, she’s a twin, but that doesn’t even half-explain her obsession with her brother.

We could have had more perspectives from the characters who needn’t be allocated just one ‘Act’ per person, and more exploration of the relationships present. What happened with Isma and Eamonn? That was very interesting but it was pushed to the side and never dealt with again. It’s fine for a classic play, but not what I want in a 2016 novel about present day issues!

In conclusion – interesting, enjoyable but with flat characters.

It’s a very accessible book. It’s easy to read, subject matter aside. The dialogue isn’t stilted and the prose flows very naturally. I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending though. It felt like the author didn’t know how to end it and so chose an easy way out. ‘Eh – this will do.’ At the very least, an epilogue would have helped tone down the suddenness of it and help bring some emotion back into the story.

I did enjoy Home Fire and I’m looking forward to reading more around these issues. It introduced some facets that hadn’t occurred to me previously, particularly in regard to the politician with an Islamic background, and I definitely wanted to keep reading to find out what happened. That said, I’m not sure it works as a whole if you don’t have at least a basic understanding of Antigone and it would definitely have been a more-rounded story if Aneeka’s story hadn’t been shoe-horned into the classic work.

Visit Kamila Shamsie on Twitter or check out her other novels here.

Comments

  1. Charlotte says:

    I love the sound of this book! Great review 🙂

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