Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

If Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young relocates Shakespeare’s King Lear to modern India, then Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire takes as its inspiration an even older play – Sophocles’ Antigone – the tragic tale of a sister forbidden to bury the body of her rebel brother.

Like We That Are Young, Home Fire unfolds through a progression of points of view – two sisters of a brother induced to travel to Syria to work with the so-called Islamic State, the brother himself, the son of the British Home Secretary, and the Home Secretary.

Western media has been quick to paint all those who have been drawn into the net of the Islamic State as uniformly evil – and their families as either equally evil or ignorant dupes. Home Fire dares to look beyond the headlines at the human beings caught up in the apparently unending cycle of violence unleashed by terrorism and the ‘War on Terror.’

Layer upon layer, Shamsie peels back causes and connections, showing - but on a very human level - how ignorance and hatred on one side feed ignorance and hatred on the other. The actions of the terrorists cast the shadow of suspicion over every Muslim living in the West, affecting their daily lives in ways most of the rest of us never stop to think about. (Googling While Muslim, as the younger sister points out, is an activity fraught with risk, where you must avoid appearing curious about the ‘wrong’ sort of thing.) And on the other side, atrocities perpetrated in Abu Graib and Guantanamo become potent recruiting tools for the very terrorist organisations they were meant to defeat.

With an odd twist of prescience, Shamsie has created a Home Secretary who is UK’s first from a British Asian background – something which came to pass in real life while Home Fire was on the 2018 Bailey’s Prize shortlist. She nails some of the character and compromises that would be necessary to allow that to happen - the racist backlash that is unleashed the moment he appears compromised in the slightest way.

The final scene of the book is profoundly moving. Its central character is given a dignity in the face of impossible odds that mirrors that in the Greek tragedies that inspired it.

A powerful and important book that should be read by anyone wanting to find humanity beyond the headlines.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie; Antigone by Jean Anouilh, The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam

Avoid If You Dislike: Looking beyond tabloid headlines about terrorism

Perfect Accompaniment: A mug of the best coffee you can find and a quiet corner to drink it in

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

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