In Sophocles’s play Antigone, the eponymous heroine wants her dead brother buried, in defiance of the king, because that is what the gods have said should be done with dead bodies. It is a battle between man’s law and religious requirements, between state-imposed edict and personal conscience. Some reviewers have suggested that Kamila Shamsie’s Booker-longlisted Home Fire, inspired by Antigone, culminates in similar conflicts.
But Shamsie’s version is, more than anything else, a meditation on citizenship — in the most modern of senses. Who gets to define what citizenship means, who can have it, and what rights it confers? This challenge at the heart of Home Fire echoes the intensifying concerns about immigration, religious identity and violent extremism that are complicating what citizenship means today, particularly in Europe and, in the case of this novel, the United Kingdom.
The novel tells the story of three siblings, Isma and the twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. They are trying to navigate life in London as British citizens of Pakistani descent and as now-orphaned children of a jihadi father, Adil Pasha. Isma imposes on herself the responsibilities of parenthood after the death of their mother and the twins develop their separate, close bond. While in the United States for her PhD, Isma runs into Eamonn Lone, the son of Karamat Lone, a politician who his British-Pakistani community thinks has turned on them to succeed in politics, and who refused to help the Pashas find out more about Adil when they heard he had died on his way to Guantanamo.
While Isma falls for Eamonn, who returns to London to fall passionately in love with Aneeka, what threatens both this love triangle and the Pasha family is the fact that the brother, Parvaiz, has gone off to Syria to join ISIS. But even as Karamat (now the home secretary) discovers that his son is dating a daughter and sister of jihadis, Parvaiz attempts to return to England after being disillusioned by his experience in Syria.
This sets in motion a series of events whose culmination raises very contemporary questions about the notion of citizenship — who gets to be a British citizen? What rights does that citizenship carry? Is Parvaiz no longer entitled to citizenship even if Aneeka claims he has been attempting to leave ISIS and return home? And in paving the way to this last question, the novel brings up even more complicated questions of citizenship, involving not jihadis but simply those who feel their belonging to a nation is being questioned even though there is no other nation they belong to.
Isma performs her citizenship by distancing herself from her father and brother, believing that in order to protect herself and Aneeka she must sever those ties and proactively inform the authorities about them. Her vigilance doesn’t always pay off. “Do you consider yourself British?” she is asked when she arrives in the United States. “I am British.” “But do you consider yourself British?” The question is not so much whether she considers herself British but whether others consider her British.
Aneeka performs her citizenship differently, demanding for Parvaiz the rights she thinks he, as a citizen, is being denied. But perhaps the most interesting performance is that of Karamat Lone. As a politician, he has played the secular, tough-on-security role he needed to play to get him where he wanted to go. But he is also a public servant — both a citizen giving back to his country, and, as the home secretary, a man with the power to decide who gets to join the club.
At points in its early sections – the novel is structured in five parts, each told from a point of view closest to one of the main characters – Home Fire can feel contrived as it tries to establish the framework within which these performances will take place and the plot will unfold. A couple of key coincidences are used to get things going: Eamonn’s maternal grandparents happen to live in Amherst, Massachusetts, where Isma happens to be doing her PhD because her former professor from the London School of Economics happens to be teaching there. And Eamonn happens to resemble his father so closely that she is able to immediately identify him as Karamat’s son, adding tension and judgment to her interactions with him.
There is also a heightened intensity to the plot, tone and language early on that can feel overdone; the speed and passion with which the romance between Aneeka and Eamonn develops, for example, fails to ring true (“And then her mouth was on his … Everything he wanted in the world right here, right now, this woman, this life, this completeness.”)
What these devices do achieve, though, is remarkably effective pacing. There is an exciting speed to the first few sections and, in return for some breathless prose, we are rewarded with forward action and just enough suspense to transport us straight through to the payoff — the finest section, the last, told from Karamat’s point of view.
This is where incredibly intelligent conceptualising and execution on Shamsie’s part shine through. The political is messy; the personal is messy too. And when the two come together, moral, ethical and interpersonal complexity is the reader’s reward.
Karamat is torn in a million different directions: his responsibility as home secretary to keep the country safe, his loyalties as a father and husband, his calculations about the political payoffs of various moves he might make, and even, at times, his suppressed sentimentality about a culture, community and language he has distanced himself from in order to become British in the way he thinks immigrants should. “He cupped his hands together,” Shamsie describes him as he hides in a safe room during a terrorism alert, “like a man about to pray or a father cradling his infant son’s head. Or a politician examining the lines of his palm.” In this last section of the novel, she expertly weaves Karamat’s various motivations into and across each other so that his personal and political loyalties change, waver and clash as he tries to determine the fate of the citizenship of Parvaiz and Aneeka.
While this section is the highlight, throughout the novel it is complexity of motivation that works best. Parvaiz’s radicalisation is driven not by his politics or lack of economic prospects. It is driven primarily by wanting to discover the father he never knew, and by feeling emasculated in a home run by women far more competent than him. Refracted though his personal demons, his politics and moral framework remain unclear and inconsistent. Isma, toughened by having to become the adult in the family, tries to play the parent even as she yearns for the closeness she knows Aneeka and Parvaiz share. She is bold enough to approach Eamonn when she first sees him, but too scared (or confused) to confess how she feels about him. She can be matter of fact on the surface, but is racked by fear and insecurity. Eamonn is mainly weak or at least naive, easily swayed by his father and Aneeka. But he redeems himself to some extent with his earnest one-percenter do-gooder-ness and the bold action he takes at the end to try to save Aneeka.
It is Aneeka, though, the novel’s heroine, who isn’t rounded out; her passion and single-mindedness can be both dull and exhausting. Even at her most distraught, she barely has qualms or second-guesses herself, and this intensity weakens the prose as well. Passages such as those describing her seamless, seductive moves from a prayer mat to Eamonn’s bed, her grief at Parvaiz’s fate, or her protest against Karamat staged in Pakistan, can feel overly dramatic, a quality that flows from the one-dimensionality of Aneeka’s character in those moments.
At its most effective and memorable, though, Home Fire mines the richest of political and personal material, grappling with the moral, ethical and emotional complexity of characters struggling with what it means to belong to a lover, to a family, and above all, to a nation.
This was originally published in the Herald's October 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a former assistant editor for the daily Dawn as well as the Herald.