“The language of violence, spoken by the powerful of all nations, erased distinctions beneath the surface.”
Kamila Shamsie's extraordinary and engrossing novel “Home Fire” is in many ways about getting beneath the surface of headlines to show the complexity of people, situations and otherness. This is the story of a family that has been splintered apart. Isma Pasha took responsibility for raising her younger twin siblings after their mother's early death and the disappearance of their father. The novel begins with Isma finally taking steps to live her own life and continue her education in America now that her brother Parvaiz and sister Aneeka are older. But Parvaiz's disconnection with his own family's past leads him into a dangerous situation. Paired with this family's story is that of Karamat Lone, a man who has been appointed the British Home Secretary and his son Eamonn. Karamat has gained political clout by spouting rhetoric that will gain him favour with white conservatives. But Eamonn's involvement with the Pasha family leads Karamat into a situation where he must choose between family and his political ambition. Shamsie subtly reworks the story and ideas of the Greek tragedy Antigone into a contemporary landscape where the question of national identity has become so divisive. It's a dramatic and engaging tale that totally gripped me.
Although I've read this novel several months after it was first published its subject matter is still striking relevant. On the morning that I finished reading this book I opened BBC News to see a story about two British-born men who joined the Islamic State and had their British citizenship revoked. One thread of Shamsie's story parallels such an instance, but gets behind the sensationalist and fearmongering media headlines where people have been demonized as terrorists or sluts to deal with the complexity of individual experience. It also opens with the very real experience that many people of Middle Eastern descent face when travelling between Britain and America where they are subjected to extensive searches at the airport. This made me recall Riz Ahmed's powerful essay in the anthology “The Good Immigrant” about the self consciousness and sense of guilt this induces. “Home Fire” shows up how British politicians often speak about cross-cultural respect and inclusivity, but many legal practices and procedures encourage division and induce feelings of otherness.
However, an interesting issue came up for me since I happened to read this novel directly after reading Ahmed Saadawi's “Frankenstein in Baghdad” which is on the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize. I like to follow prize lists so I'm trying to read some titles from this as well as all the books on the longlist for the Women's Prize for Fiction. But it struck me how major plot lines for both these novels are about terrorism and of their respective prize lists they are the only titles by authors of Middle Eastern descent. This raises a question for me about representation since it seems striking that the only novels by Middle Eastern writers that are being lauded in these British prizes are about headline issues. The same could be said about the 2017 Booker Prize longlist which Shamsie was also nominated for alongside Mohsin Hamid whose novel “Exit West” is about immigration.
I'm not criticising these authors for their choice of topics or story lines. All three of these novels are excellent in their own right, include dynamic individual characters and explore things other than these headline issues. And I'm not trying to lambast these prizes or the publishing industry. Perhaps it's simply a coincidence that these prize-nominated books are dealing with topics that many Westerns instantly associate with Middle Eastern countries and people of Middle Eastern descent. And in many ways these novels powerfully show the complexity behind these topics. It just makes me question why we're not also celebrating and reading more Middle Eastern authors who write about different aspects of Muslim and Middle Eastern life. One of the things I most admired about Elif Shafak's recent novel “Three Daughters of Eve” was its portrayal of very different kinds of young Muslim women in Britain. As a reader, I'd like more of this and a greater plurality of literature. I hope to read more books that show multifaceted aspects of BAME communities and individuals. I spoke about this in my recent Reading Wrap Up video and asked for more book recommendations so I'm pleased to see several comments from people suggesting more Middle Eastern literature. This is just something I thought worth pointing out since I read “Home Fire” in this particular context. Completely aside from this or maybe because it vigorously deals with such topical issues, I think Kamila Shamsie's novel is incredibly distinct, beautifully written and an extraordinarily engaging story.