One of the best things about what I will call my Wednesday Book Group as opposed to that which meets on a Monday, is that we each take it in turns to choose a book. This means that every now and again I meet an author whose works I’d not previously encountered; a couple of years ago this was the case with Kamila Shamsie. We read Burnt Shadows, which I thought was a remarkable book and so I went on to read her then current novel, the equally impressive, A God in Every Stone. Consequently, when Home Fire was announced as one of this year’s Booker Long List even before it was published, I was looking forward to another absorbing, emotive and challenging read. To some extent those hopes have been met, but in others I’m afraid I have been left disappointed.
The novel is divided into five sections, each of which is told from the perspective of one of the main characters: PhD student Isma, just off to America; her younger sister, Aneeka, in her first year of a law degree; Eamonn, the son of a powerful British Muslim politician; Parvaiz, Aneeka’s twin brother and finally Karamat Lone, Eamonn’s father and newly appointed Home Secretary. I think it is this structure which is at the heart of at least one of the problems I have with the book. Focusing on just one character at a time allows Shamsie to operate a slow reveal of vital information, however, starting with Isma, who has been responsible for her siblings upbringing, but who is least tightly wound into the dilemma in which the main players ultimately find themselves, set me off on a false trail. I became invested in Isma and assumed she would have a more central role, whereas in fact, after that initial section she becomes peripheral to the conflict that is at the heart of the story and it became apparent that her chapters are there primarily to provide background information about Karamat Lone and his political stance in respect of her father, Adil Pasha, who has died on his way to Guantanamo Bay. The main plot doesn’t begin to appear until the second section, told from the perspective of the intense and beautiful Aneeka, who enthrals Eamonn on sight and then sets out to use her power over him for the good of Parvaiz who, we now discover, is working with Jihadist forces in the Middle East. From this point on the novel takes off and becomes an exploration of two motivating forces, asking not only what we will do for love and what we will do for power, but also what happens when those compelling imperatives come into conflict.
As it develops it becomes clear that Home Fire is a retelling of the Antigone story. Aneeka’s love for her brother drives her to a point beyond rationality and Eamonn is caught between his feelings for her and his place as his father’s son. And this, I think is the source of my second concern with the novel. In the tradition from which Antigone comes characters are very often types, moulded to fit the role they are required to play in the overall thrust of the story. And that is how I feel about both Eamonn and, most particularly, Karamat Lone. I believe in Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz completely. They are convincing as individuals and when Shamsie is writing about them I persuaded of their reality. Eamonn and Karamat Lone, on the other hand, simply don’t come off the paper. They are stereotypes created to fit the purpose of the story and I don’t believe in either of them. While I might find this acceptable in Greek Traedgy, here it gives the novel something of the stamp of a polemic and consequently undermines my acceptance of what Shamsie is trying to say.
There is some fine writing in the book, particularly in the section given over to Parvaiz, which for me is the most convincing. But in the end, Shamsie’s failure to persuade me of the reality of two main characters means that as far as I am concerned this is the least successful of the three novels I have read.