By Katy Goodwin-Bates
For the past few years, I’ve set myself the slightly ludicrous target of reading the Man Booker shortlist. It’s not like I’m often asked for my views on potential winners, but I don’t like to be unprepared. Last year, two of the shortlist were absolutely terrible, so it’s a task I have approached with caution in 2017, starting early with the longlist to weed out the dregs. It is this Booker mission that serendipitously led me to Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, an intimate yet exhilarating look at family, politics and terrorism, using Sophocles’ Antigone as its inspiration.
The novel begins with Isma’s move from London to the USA, finally free of her obligations to her younger siblings after the death of both their parents some years before. Isma and the twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz, struggle with the legacy of the father they barely knew: a jihadist whose name still instills fear in customs agents and the public alike. Into their world comes Eamonn, the son of the Home Secretary, who also happens to be a Muslim with a complex relationship with those who share his faith. Some bonds deepen while others are severed altogether, with devastating consequences.
Shamsie makes excellent use of structure in detailing the interdependent layers of her story. The novel begins by focusing on Isma, including her first meetings with Eamonn, before switching to him as the central character: a pattern which continues throughout as Shamsie drip-feeds details about characters and backstories before offering her reader greater insight in the next section. It creates an incremental sense of revelation that is immensely effective in lulling the reader into a false sense of security, giving us the sense that we have all the information when, in fact, there are many surprises to come. It also allows us to begin to care about characters, like Parvaiz and Aneeka, by learning about them through the perspective of those who love them, creating a clever sense of protectiveness in the reader.
‘If we try to leave the country together the people who work for your father will know.’ At his puzzled look: ‘MI5. They listen in on my phone calls, they monitor my messages, my internet history. You think they’ll think it’s innocent if I board a plane to Bali with the Home Secretary’s son?’
It was a mark of his love for her that he felt nothing other than protective about the Muslim paranoia she’d revealed the previous day. Gently he said, ‘my love, I promise you MI5 isn’t watching you because of your father.’
‘I know. They’re watching me because of my brother.’
Home Fire tells a story that seems familiar from engaging with current events with its focus on topical concepts like radicalisation, racial profiling and the role of politics in mediating between different religions and ethnicities. What makes Shamsie’s novel so effective in doing this is the intimate nature of the plotting, with major issues presented through characters’ engagement with them. As a teacher, I’ve received training on spotting the signs of potential radicalisation, and Home Fire‘s depiction of it has stuck in my mind as much as any government-produced video, and this is testament to how complex and believable the novel is. This sense of authenticity almost makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction, as the events described so closely mirror what we see covered in the media every day.
This review will be published in the days before the Booker longlist becomes a shortlist and I hope Home Fire is still in contention for the prize when that happens. Of the longlisted books I’ve read so far, it’s up there with Colson Whitehead’s astonishing The Underground Railroad and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. Where several of the novels on the longlist experiment with form and style in ways that threaten to render them unreadable (I’ve checked this assertion with some other keen readers; it’s not just me), Kamila Shamsie has written a novel that manages to be clever and complex without ever alienating the reader; on the contrary, Home Fire is one of the most absorbing books I’ve read this year.