“A man entered the office, carrying Isma’s passport, laptop, and phone. She allowed herself to hope, but he sat down, gestured for her to do the same, and placed a voice recorder between them.
‘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.”
Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire” is a beautifully spun story exploring the deep inter-twinings of the personal and the political. Londoner Isma Pasha has spent most of her life as the dependable, devout, older sister to twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. Their father’s infrequent presence in their lives, followed by his dramatic and mysterious death while being transported to Guantanamo and their mother’s death years later, have left Isma guardian of her brother and sister. The tensions and tragedies of their lives have left the siblings deeply enmeshed and yet simultaneously adrift. Parvaiz, in particular, feels the absence of a father-figure in a world that is less than welcoming to Muslim émigrés.
“He had always watched boys and their fathers with an avidity composed primarily of hunger. Whenever any of those fathers had made a certain kind of gesture toward him – a hand placed on the back of his neck, the word ‘son,’ an invitation to a football match – he’d retreat, ashamed and afraid in a jumbled way that only grew more so as the years passed and as the worlds of girls and boys grew more separate; there were times he was not a twin but rather the only male in a house that knew all the secrets women shared with one another but none that fathers taught their sons.”
Now that the twins are adults, Isma has a chance to follow her own dreams, and she flees to a graduate fellowship in America, hoping to restart her life. Meanwhile sister Aneeka pursues law in London, while brother Parvaiz pursues his own dark dreams of following in their jihadist father’s footsteps. The fourth and final player in this drama is Eamonn, the charming son of a diplomat floating through life without purpose or passion.
Shamsie tells her story (a reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone for you classicists out there) in four parts, each from the point of view of one of the four protagonists. Each section is quiet, full of introspection and angst more than dialogue and action, yet all advance the story’s wider premise.
“‘[A]mong the things this country will let you achieve if you’re Muslim is torture, rendition, detention without trial, airport interrogations, spies in your mosques, teachers reporting your children to the authorities for wanting a world without … injustice.'”
“Home Fire” is deeply political in its exploration of the émigré experience, unpacking the suspicion and distrust many Muslim people face when navigating the non-Muslim, ‘western’ world. But “Home Fire” is equally about family and loyalty, about what we will do for the ones we love. Shamsie writes with quiet grace and impenetrable strength, and her newest novel well-deserves its selection to the Man Booker Prize Longlist.