Booker longlist reading: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Just under the wire, I finished one of my most eagerly awaited longlist nominees. Shamsie’s novel has received rave reviews all over the place and is the bookie’s favorite to make the shortlist. It’s a topic that I’ve studied and written on and one that matters a lot to me: the way in which the post 9/11 (and in this case, 7/7) attacks have reshaped the way Muslims are perceived and treated in western Europe and North America. Shamsie’s novel is set in the UK and focuses on the particular issues there, but the larger themes apply across many settings.
Liz, Rosario, Theresa, and other Booker Longlist readers have described the plot so I won’t rehash that here (you should definitely go read their reviews and the comments to them). Shamsie models her story on the plot of Sophocles’ Antigone, with a few modifications in the cast and family relationships. In her telling there are two central families, one comprising Isma, Aneeka, and Pervaiz Pasha, the children of a British-Pakistani man who died fighting with Islamist terrorists; and the other headed by Karamat Lone, rising front-bench politician and current Home Secretary whose marriage to a wealthy, successful American businesswoman has propelled his career. Karamat and Terry have two children in their 20s: Emily, an investment banker in NY, and Eamonn, a somewhat aimless but charming and handsome 24-year-old.
Isma is the older mother-substitute, who finally has the chance to pursue her own intellectual ambitions when twins Aneeka and Pervaiz reach adulthood. But her decision to pursue a Ph.D. in the United States sets a number of actions in motion, actions that will have devastating consequences for all of them. And Karamat Lone is drawn back into the Muslim community that has both raised and rejected him, with his political ambitions tied to events he can only imperfectly control.
The novel is told from the POVs of these four characters and Karamat’s son Eamonn. It opens with Isma’s journey to the US, and I initially thought that she was the focus (it was before I reacquainted myself with the story of Antigone, obviously, and I hadn’t paid enough attention to the names). As each character advances the plot through their perspective, the story gains speed and intensity and builds to a very powerful conclusion.
There are a lot of layers to this novel even though it is less than 300 pages long. Sophocles’ themes of family v. state and what we owe to each are front and center, but placing them within the context of Islamist terror networks and their effects on British Muslims adds additional dimensions.
I found the first half of the book a bit disappointing, given the high hopes I had for it. I liked the opening section featuring Isma, but then the switch to Eamonn took a while to develop, and Eamonn is (by design, I think) not the most gripping narrator. He’s sweet but unfocused, and he doesn’t seem to pick up on the cues around him. There are some lovely scenes, like the fateful visit to Auntie Naseem’s where he meets Aneeka, but his relationship with Aneeka doesn’t seem to work well, and we don’t realize until why the very end of his section.
If Isma’s decision is the catalyst for the events that unfold, Pervaiz is the fulcrum. He’s the sibling with the least direction, but his decision transforms the lives of his so many people: his siblings, the Lones, and to a lesser degree his extended family in the UK and Pakistan. I’m still processing his character and the way Shamsie depicts his journey to joining the Islamic State. I don’t think we can ever really understand any given individual’s choices, because they’re a blend of sociological, political, and idiopathic psychological factors, and Shamsie does pull her punches by making him a fellow-traveler who witnesses atrocities rather than a perpetrator. But that’s a completely understandable choice given the majority of her reading audience. I would have liked to see a more in-depth exploration of his own psyche, but we don’t see that for any of the characters. Pervaiz seemed believable to me, and perhaps sketching his character in watercolors rather than oils worked better for the overall story being told.
As soon as she realizes her twin needs help, Aneeka swings into action, devising a strategy and going all-in. That this strategy comes with significant collateral damage is irrelevant to her, and she mows down everything in her righteous path. I didn’t find her sympathetic but I did find her relatively believable. If the first half of the novel disappointed me, the second half made up for it and then some. I knew how Antigone ends, and yet the last page came as a shock.
The final section of the book was made more powerful for me by the switch to the POV of Karamat Lone. Karamat, who looms over the previous sections, finally takes center stage as the action accelerates, which makes sense given his powerful political position. I found him completely unsympathetic but as with Aneeka, I found him believable. Shamsie shows, through his character, how some personalities cope with potential marginality by becoming more Catholic than the Pope (so to speak), and the tenuous grip he has on political success unfolds beautifully. Despite everything he has done to distance himself from That Kind Of Muslim, it follows him and there is always someone from the traditional ruling class ready to take the chance to narrow that gap.
I think that for many readers, this novel will offer a crucial and necessary window into how extremist movements recruit adherents and what it is like to be susceptible to such appeals. I think Pervaiz represents that kind of person quite well. But he represents a small minority; Isma is far more typical. It’s too bad that Isma gets such short on-page time, because she offers an important counterpoint to the choices made by Karamat. But that is to some extent dictated by the framework.
Halfway through this novel I was a bit disappointed. By the end I was completely won over. Writing this post, I realize what a tightrope Shamsie was walking and I’m so impressed by how she navigated it. Home Fire doesn’t have the sheer writing brilliance of some of the other nominees, but it’s a great achievement. I really hope it makes the shortlist.