It’s been three years since Kamila Shamsie’s last novel, A God in Every Stone, a book I confidently expected to appear on the following year’s Baileys longlist. This year’s Man Booker judges have followed suit, longlisting Home Fire which I’m sure would have appeared on my own wishlist had I read it in time. It’s a retelling of Antigone – those who know their Sophocles won’t be expecting a happy ending.
On her way to begin a PhD in America, Isma is waylaid by the British border authorities and subjected to a humiliating interrogation. Once there, she settles into a pleasing routine, setting up her laptop in a local café most mornings. Her nineteen-year-old sister regularly Skypes her from home in London. Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz also appears online, a frequent but silent presence. One day Isma recognises a handsome young man in the café. He’s the son of the British Home Secretary, a Muslim known to be a hardliner, determined to clamp down on extremism no matter how unpopular it makes him. Eamonn and Isma become comfortably familiar with each other but Isma is careful not to reveal her history until she trusts him. Her father died when she was a child, a terrorist on his way to Guantánamo. Hers is a family used to secrecy, tightly knit and even more so after the death of her mother when Isma took the upbringing of the twelve-year-old twins upon herself. When Eamonn offers to take a package home for her, he decides to deliver it in person, meeting Aneeka with whom he becomes smitten. To his surprise, she returns his interest and an affair begins but Aneeka has an ulterior motive – a determination to bring her beloved brother back from Syria.
Shamsie excels at taking complex themes and humanising them. She structures her novel into five sections, shifting perspective between each of her principal characters so that we are presented with a rounded view of how this tragedy has come about. Her characters are carefully fleshed out and entirely credible, each with a different experience of what it is to be a Muslim in the twenty-first century Western world. Parvaiz is far from a caricature jihadi – a young man who sees his sisters forging ahead in their respective studies but finds his own talents frustrated, easy prey to the older man who flatters and ingratiates himself, grooming him and leading him towards a hell that six months later he’s desperate to escape. Shamsie’s writing is both beautiful and lucid, her depictions of political maneuvering and the media’s lurid sensationalism sophisticated and believable. Tensions between what the state expects and requires, and the pull of familial love are explored in a story which kept me gripped to its dramatic end. This is a very fine novel, perhaps her best yet and thoroughly deserving of its place on the Man Booker longlist.