‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2018.

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is an astute, highly readable and compelling novel about the ways in which familial and patriotic loyalties can be tested when love and politics collide.

Set in modern-day Britain, it’s the first novel I’ve read that has fleshed out what makes young Muslim men become radicalised and join ISIS. It also asks important questions about nationality, citizenship and whether terrorists can ever be reformed after they have fought abroad to create a (failed) Caliphate.

Structured around three siblings

The story is framed around three siblings of Pakistani heritage — twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, and their older sister Isma, who raised them when they became orphaned. Their father, whom they have never known, was a jihadist, famously said to have died en-route to being imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.

Each sibling’s story is told in a separate section so that we come to understand their individual motivations, dreams and fears.

Two additional characters — Karamat Lone, the UK’s outspoken Home Secretary, who is also of Pakistani heritage and a Muslim, and his spoilt young adult son, Eamonn, who becomes sexually involved with Aneeka — also get their own sections.

Airport interrogation

When the book opens we are thrust into the world of an airport interrogation. Isma, finally free of her duty to raise her younger twin siblings, is heading to the US to commence a PhD programme in sociology. She already knows she’s on a watchlist, thanks to her father’s history, so she has been careful not to pack anything that may be interpreted the wrong way, so no Quoran and no family photographs, but the hostility and the sense of injustice is palpable throughout the questioning.

‘Do you consider yourself British?’ the man said.
‘I am British.’
‘But do you consider yourself British?’
‘I’ve lived here all my life.’ She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.

This sets the scene for the rest of the story, which shows, often in painstaking detail, how British-born Muslims are often regarded — by the media, by authorities, by politicians and by members of the public — as being terrorists or of having terrorist sympathies, and how they must negotiate this world of suspicion, either by lying low or playing along.

Shamsie is very good at highlighting how the public mood, often set by posturing politicians, gives rise to a climate of fear. Lone, the Home Secretary, is the son of immigrants but is, himself, anti-immigrant. On TV he speaks tough about British values and plots to extend his own powers so that he can revoke British citizenship so that it applies to British-born single passport holders only. It is his actions and his words that help fan the paranoia surrounding anyone of the Islamic faith living in Britain.

But the story really hinges on Parvais, the twin brother, who pursues the idea that his father was a hero he’d like to emulate. More by accident than design, he falls in with what we might term “the wrong crowd” and finds himself heading to Syria to join the media arm of ISIS. He tells his twin sister he’s going to Turkey for a holiday so that his “disappearance” doesn’t arouse suspicion. Of course, it’s no plot spoiler to reveal that everyone, including his two sisters, knows what he has done — after he has done it.

Based on a Greek myth

What is perhaps less obvious is the individual reactions to Parvais’ decision. Even Parvais’ own reaction, once the realisation of what he has done sinks in, demonstrates that being young and idealistic is no match for reality and taking responsibility for your actions.

Many reviews of Home Fire make much of the fact that the story is based on the ancient Greek myth of Antigone. If you know that myth, the ending probably won’t surprise you, but I’m woefully uneducated in this regard and found the conclusion quite shocking and profound.

This is a smart, thought-provoking and fearless novel. It was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Novel Award and won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review.

13 thoughts on “‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

    • It’s a really excellent novel. I hadn’t really any desire to read it, but picked it up for $3 in a local charity shop and read the bulk of it at Perth Airport when my flight to Melbourne was delayed by three hours! 🙄 I found it hugely readable and really tapped into the whole British jihadist thing very well.

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  1. I read your reviews of British (and Irish) books because I like reading about books. But this is one of those few which make me think ‘I really should read that’. Young lefties of my age were often sorry we didn’t have an International Brigade to fight in, and now that I’ve graduated from angry young man to angry old man I totally get that some young Muslim men and women want to fight back, against the totally unjust situation in Palestine, against Western interference in the Middle East, against American everything. The demonisation all Muslims cop from the Right is just so unjust.

    Of course I’m also very relieved I never ended up on an actual battlefield.

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    • This book shows very cleverly that going to fight abroad in a war you don’t really understand has dangerous repercussions. On top of the risk of death, Parvaiz slowly realises that he will never be allowed back to the UK and he’s exchanged a life of freedom and liberal values for one that is mired in hate and violence. This realisation is a wake up call that he’s pursuing the wrong path in life. Emulating his father will not make him happy. I think the moral of the story is to be careful what you wish for!

      If we ever catch up for that beer you can have my copy… I got it from that secondhand shop (near Coles) which is full of interesting $3 treasures!

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  2. This was one of the titles selected for a book club discussion but I couldn’t make the meeting so never got around to reading it at the time. The more I saw the book promoted, the less interested I became in reading it (perverse I know). But your thoughts have made me change my mind. I have no knowledge of Antigone so shall be as surprised by the ending as you were I suspect

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