Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I have not been reading much this year. But what I did manage to read, was devoured with the furtive urgency of a starving stray – excuse the crude metaphor. I started and finished Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie yesterday. Initial thoughts? This was my third read by her. Now, I want to read every other work of fiction she has ever written. Here’s why –

Summary: Home Fire is a modern-day reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone. The story follows two British Muslim sisters, Isma and Aneeka, and the people who flavour and mould their lives. At the beginning of the story, we see Isma Pasha move to the United States for her PhD, while her sister Aneeka pursues a law degree back home in London. The two sisters are close, except for a brewing conflict about Aneeka’s twin brother, Parvaiz. who has disappeared, seemingly to follow in the footsteps of their jihadist father. The sisterhood bursts at its seams when Aneeka uncovers a dark truth about Isma’s involvement in their brother’s disappearance. Aneeka attempts to seek help for Parvaiz and finds uncanny hope in a young Muslim man who happens to be the Home Secretary’s son. But the political climate is such that Aneeka has many obstacles in her way, including her very own sister Isma.

My thoughts: The story is anything but comforting – so it might be strange when I say this: Kamila Shamsie’s writing sends through me the same radiating warmth as a steaming cup of tea on a rainy afternoon. It’s comforting. I don’t know what it is about the flow, the words or the characters that creates this impression. She’s a fantastic storyteller and the book is engaging, even in its most horrific moments.

Well crafted, well rounded, meaty characters. She uses five perspectives in this book. The two sisters, the young man and his politician father, and the lost brother Parvaiz – not only does each character sound different – but every one of them is the star of their own little corner of the world, justifying their actions and stance to themselves as anyone would, caught up in their own struggles, coloured by their own biases. There is no narrator’s bias, no authorial judgement, and as a reader, you really are left to draw your own inferences and allegiances. A lot of responsibility to put on the reader!

It is a throbbing discomfort to know that, in a sea of possibilities, it is Isma’s character I most easily identify with – whose preferred choice of action appears to be the least obstructive, most pragmatic way out of conflict.

The more obvious themes – draconian citizenship laws, identity politics, Islamophobia, diversity, culture shock, loss of language identity, living up to and breaking stereotypes, fear-mongering, privilege. Lots of drama, but it’s a short book! Another plus: the book manages to avoid making sweeping generalizations. It keeps contextualising these issues within the boundaries of this story, using characters who really represent all sides of the argument; which is why I wouldn’t call it a ‘political’ novel, in that, it doesn’t push its own message.

There is something very interesting that Shamsie does do – and that is to build a reflection of… not the current political landscape, but a political soundscape. Throughout the story, she uses sound imagery and sound metaphors in the most interesting ways. The sounds of Urdu, the sound of Urdu-tinted English, the sounds of London, the sounds of the twins chatting with each other, the ‘ping’ of a Skype call, a Pakistani pop song, the sounds of men screaming as they die, a girl howling with grief, sounds of torture, of sex, of fire crackling, walkie-talkies crackling… and no one listening, not really; or everyone tuning in to their own version of reality. All that noise. We hear it, but do we listen?

The book is also about family – parental figures, and absent parents; and being saddled down with legacies. About love – misguided, overpowering, selfish, transactional, passionate and cruel love. Odd chapters here and there are only snippets off the internet. Articles, hashtags, tweets, taking reality and twisting it into its own viral anti-reality. What is true? What is real? Who cares?

Every once in a while, they heard the whump! of a section of dislodged snow landing on the ground, but it felt safe to keep going. Their talk was insubstantial – but even so, the Englishness of his humour, and his cultural references, were a greater treat than she would have expected. Small talk came more naturally to him than to her, but he was careful not to dominate the conversation – listening with interest to even her most banal conversations, asking follow-up questions rather than using her lines as springboards to monologues of his own…

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