Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Kamila Shamsie, literary fiction, London, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘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.

Author, Book review, Deirdre Madden, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting

‘Hidden Symptoms’ by Deirdre Madden

Hidden-symptoms

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 144 pages; 2014.

In recent years, Deirdre Madden has become one of my favourite writers. She has 10 novels to her name, but I’ve only reviewed three of them — One by One in the Darkness (published in 1996), Molly Fox’s Birthday (2008) and Time Present and Time Past (2013) — which means I have many years of reading pleasure ahead of me if I space them out accordingly.

Her debut novel, Hidden Symptoms,  first published in 1986, is a densely constructed story about a trio of characters living in Belfast during The Troubles.

It revolves around university student Theresa, a devout Catholic, whose faith is tested by the murder of her twin brother, whose badly mutilated body was found dumped on a patch of waste ground near the city centre several years earlier, the result of sectarian violence.

Love and violence

But the story is just as much about the faith — and the trust — placed in friendships, for Theresa spends most of her time with Robert, a writer and frustrated intellectual, who aspires to better things and despises his sister’s sheltered suburban life, and Robert’s girlfriend, Kathy, a fellow student, who discovers that the father she thought had died when she was a baby is actually living in London with his new young family.

The background to these family dramas — “people marrying, mating and mixing genes” —  is Belfast in the 1980s, a time of great conflict between paramilitary forces, British state security forces and political activists. Yet despite the violence, Theresa views it as “normal” because, as she explains early on in the novel, “she had watched it [Belfast] sink since her childhood from ‘normality’ to its present state”.

What she cannot come to terms with, however, is knowing that someone in the city killed her brother purely because of his religion (he was not known to be a member of any paramilitary organisation). She is plagued by pain, distress and paranoia:

… she arrived too early for an arranged meeting with Kathy in a city-centre pub. She bought a drink and while she waited she looked around at the other customers, the majority of whom were men, until slowly the thought of the man who had killed her brother crept back into her mind. Those men who were laughing in the corner; that man with reddish hair and big, rough hands who was drinking alone; even the white-coated barman, cutting wedges of lemon for gin-and-tonics: any one of them might have done it. She gazed at each of them in turn and thought in cold fright: “Is he the one? Did he do it? Is he the man who murdered Francis?”

The political and religious divide

Admittedly, Theresa is not a terribly likeable person — she’s (understandably) bitter and angry, and all her conversations tend towards the argumentative, particularly where politics is concerned. Her relationship with Robert, initiated in a cafe when she roundly criticises and condemns a piece about Irish literature that he wrote in a magazine, is fraught from the outset but it soon descends into irreconcilable differences because their views on politics and religion are so polarised.

And yet despite her fierce talk and hard-held opinions, there’s a fragility about Theresa that is hard to ignore. Her grief, at times, is palpable, and it is to Madden’s credit that it never descends into maudlin self-pity or sentimentality.

Hidden Symptoms is a short novel — indeed, it was originally published in Faber’s First Fictions anthology where it was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 1987 — but it’s so tightly written it would take an age to unpick all the issues and themes it contains. As a dark exploration of bereavement, faith, love, loyalty and violence, you would be hard pressed to find a book more powerful — or intelligent.

1001 books, Alma Classics, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Mikhail Bulgakov, Publisher, Russia, Setting

‘The Master & Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov

Master-and-margarita

Fiction – paperback; Alma Classics; 432 pages; 2012. Translated from the Russian by Hugh Aplin.

When it comes to Russian literature, I’m woefully under-read. Indeed, I’ve only ever reviewed one great on this blog — Ivan Turgenev’s First Love — and that’s really a short story, not a novel. So when my book group chose Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita — billed as one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature — to read earlier this year I was rather excited by the prospect. But the excitement, I’m sad to say, soon gave way to other, less favourable, emotions…

Two stories in one book

The Master and Margarita is a satirical fantasy composed of two intertwined narrative threads. In the first, the devil, disguised as a shape-shifting stage magician called Woland, visits Soviet Moscow and wreaks havoc on the cultural elite, punishing sinners and throwing people into prison. In the second, the story of Pontius Pilate in the days immediately before and after Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, are described in the form of a book being written by a struggling Moscow writer.

These twin storylines are filled with a cast of strange and extraordinary characters, including “the master”, who is an unnamed writer befriended by Woland, and the master’s adulterous lover, Margarita.

The book is mostly composed of truly absurd scenes — including a black cat that walks on two legs and is capable of talking — prompting me to think, rather flippantly and with tongue planted firmly in my cheek, that Bulgakov wrote it when he was off his face on vodka. And yet, despite my aversion to magic realism, of which there is quite a bit in this hefty 400-plus page novel, I quite enjoyed some of the more fantastical elements, including the section in which Margarita transforms into a witch at Satan’s Ball and has an amazing time getting people to respect her.

But I struggled with the Pontius Pilate “novel”, which seemed to interrupt the flow of the (more interesting and mischievous) devil’s narrative.

A challenging read

I read this book on and off over the course of the month (in between other reads) and found it was best to tackle it in large chunks — at least an hour at a time — instead of the usual 20-minute tube journey. Overall, I found it really hard work, certainly the first half which was “bitty” (and that second chapter, which switches from “modern” Moscow to ancient Jerusalem, really disoriented me), but I found the second half  much more enjoyable and easier to read.

That said, a lot of the biblical stuff went over my head: it’s a very ecclesiastical novel and I wasn’t raised in that tradition. I wonder if I might have identified with it more/made links if I knew the Bible much better?

All in all, it’s a novel full of surprising moments (I will never look at a black cat the same way again) and one that took me right out of my comfort zone into a crazy, inventive world the likes of which I’ve never experienced before.

Interestingly, The Master and Margarita was not published during Bulgakov’s lifetime — it was first published in 1966, almost 30 years after his death — because it satirised Soviet life and highlighted the ways in which Christianity was attacked during the communist period, or as 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die points out, it “blasted open ‘official truths’ with the force of a carnival out of control”.  You can read more about the author on his wikipedia page.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Flannery O'Connor, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Wise Blood’ by Flannery O’Connor

Wise-blood

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 160 pages; 2008.

Flannery O’Connor’s debut novel, Wise Blood, was first published in 1949. It’s a rather odd, slightly disturbing, tale set in America’s evangelical Deep South after the Second World War and is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Return home

The story follows a young man, Hazel Motes, from Eastrod, Tennessee, who returns to the South after four years in the army. We know little of his background other than his grandfather had been a preacher, his younger brother died in infancy and his other brother fell in front of a mowing machine when he was seven years old.

We also know that as a child he had wanted to follow family tradition and become a preacher, but somewhere along the line — most likely in the war — he has turned completely against religion and does not believe that Jesus exists.

When he arrives back home he comes across a “blind” preacher, Asa Hawkes, and his 15-year-old daughter, Sabbath, and is so infuriated by their “message” that he decides to set up his own anti-religion. It is called The Church Without Christ.

“I’m a member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”

He then buys a car (even though he doesn’t have a driving licence) and travels the streets looking for convenient places — usually out the front of a movie house — to preach his message, where he is generally given short shrift. When another man “adopts” his religion but calls it the Holy Church Without Christ things get complicated — and violent.

A comic novel — or a macabre one?

In the Author’s Note to my edition, Flannery O’Connor writes  (in 1962) that Wise Blood is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui. But I have to admit I didn’t see much that was funny and was often disturbed by the undertone of menace throughout and the ways in which the narrative often turned on violent or macabre events.

But there’s a lot to mull over here, because even though the book is just 160 pages long, it’s jam-packed with ideas and issues and moves along at a clipping pace. I often had to re-read entire pages because I had missed a crucial piece of information and I think I could probably read the book for a second time and still not feel I had grasped everything to which the author alludes.

For instance, I’m still not quite sure of the purpose of a secondary character, Enoch Emery, an 18-year-old loner who befriends Haze on his second day in town. Enoch believes he has a purpose but he doesn’t quite know what it is — and even when he steals a museum artefact as a “religious icon” for Haze’s church, he still doesn’t know why he’s behaved in such a manner. Perhaps he’s a metaphor for blind faith, for simply following a religion without knowing why?

The role of the character of Sabbath Hawkes is much more obvious: she’s a temptress who Haze initially wants to seduce. When he later changes his mind, she pursues him with a kind of religious fervour.

For such a short book, there is certainly a lot to think about. And as a reading experience, I was constantly uneasy and unsettled as I turned the pages. Motes might be joyless, cold and uncaring — in fact, I might go so far as to say he’s psychopathic — but somewhere along the line you begin to care about him, especially when he goes to extraordinary lengths to punish himself. That in itself — the ability of a writer to make you feel for a truly unlikable character — is a talent not to be underestimated.

I wouldn’t say Wise Blood is a fun book, but it’s certainly a wonderful Gothic tale that tickles the brain matter and I’m glad I finally found the courage to pluck it from my TBR where it has sat undisturbed for several years.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, John MacKenna, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘A Haunted Heart’ by John MacKenna

Haunted-heart

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 272 pages; 1999.

John MacKenna’s A Haunted Heart is a rather beautiful story about an elderly Irish woman looking back on her life in which she joined the Quakers and fell in love with someone who did not love her back. The entire novel has a lovely Victorian feel to it and is ripe with mystery, forbidden love,  religious fervour, guilt and redemption.

A lifetime of journals

It is 1959. Elizabeth Hallshead is 78 and has spent the past 60 years living in England. She returns to her native Ireland after the death of her cousin, whose house she has inherited. She takes a lifetime of journals with her — 69 volumes — and prepares to write an account of her friend Abigail’s life for Abigail’s daughters.

I first met your mother, Abigail Beale (née Meredith), in the February of 1899. You were three years old, then, Lydia, and you, Myfanwy, were two. But before I tell you of that, I need to step back a short space, to the first time I saw Joshua Jacob, for he was to be the one who brought your mother and me together and the one who caused the separation between you and your mother.

But writing this memorial is not a straightforward or easy task. First, Elizabeth is gravely ill. Though we never find out the precise nature of her medical condition, we know that she is not expected to live very long. She is in the care of the kindly local doctor, who is just a phone call away, but sometimes she is in so much physical pain she cannot continue to work on the manuscript.  (By contrast, when she isn’t in pain, she enjoys exploring the countryside on her bicycle!)

And second, there are aspects to Abigail’s story which are mentally painful to recall. This is accompanied by the feeling that Elizabeth is holding things back, though whether she is trying to spare the feelings of Abigail’s daughter or is unable to confront her own truth, it is difficult to tell.

Two narratives

The novel is structured around these two intertwined narratives — Elizabeth’s present day (told in diary form) in which she writes the memorial, deals with her illness and tries to track down Abigail’s children; and her past (told in manuscript form) in which she joined an offshoot of the Quakers, run by the charismatic if misguided Joshua, and met Abigail, who had sacrificed her marriage and motherhood to become a disciple.

In both narratives, Elizabeth’s voice is engaging and intimate, and while it’s clear she is trying to set the record straight for Abigail’s children, ultimately she is confessing to a forbidden love she has kept secret for more than half a century.

In fact, this seems to be a recurring them in MacKenna’s work; two of his other novels which I have read and reviewed on this site — The Last Fine Summer, published in 1997, and The Space Between Us, published in 2009 — also deal with forbidden love, albeit two completely different types.

A moving story

A Haunted Heart is a strangely beguiling story dealing with big themes — remorse and longing, religious extremism and personal accountability, amongst others  — set in a time when not everyone was free to live the life they wished to live.

It is incredibly moving in places — at times it made me angry, at other times it filled me with despair — but in the tradition of great Irish literature it is always restrained and never sentimental.

Sadly, A Haunted Heart appears to be out of print, but you should be able to source a copy from secondhand booksellers online for just a few pennies. I paid about 2 pence for mine; I would have easily paid £20 (and more) for it and thought it value for money.