Two Families Torn by Terrorism and History
Home Fire, a novel by Kamila Shamsie (Penguin Random House, 2017)
Here is a novel, winner of the UK’s 2018 Women’s Prize For Fiction, about two Pakistani British families and their relations with each other and with the politics of various places. The author, a native of Karachi now living in that city and London, has written six other highly regarded novels; and this one was long-listed for both of Britain’s top fiction prizes. The book is based on Sophocles’ play Antigone, about a young woman determined to bury the body of her brother, killed in an attack on the kingdom of her uncle, who opposes her wishes and brings on further tragedy.
Home Fire has two main settings—the UK, as experienced by Pakistani immigrants; and ISIS-held or -influenced territories. We follow two families whose members try to negotiate these worlds. In one family, the Muslim Pashas, two sisters, Isma and Aneeka (their parents are dead), young women, have a missing brother, Parvais, and deal with the legacy of their father, who had fought as a terrorist. The other family, the irreligious Lones, consists of a young man, Eamonn, and his favored sister (largely absent) and their parents, an Irish-American jet-setting designer, Terry, and the powerful Pakistani-born UK politician, Karamat. The Home Secretary of the UK, Karamat is a fierce political animal; but, as we shall see, his impressive ability to capitalize on British ethnic and political prejudice does not enable him, in a crisis, to weigh the imperatives of state and family, life and death.
Shamsie structures the book in sections focused on the lead characters. She uses the third person throughout, although first-person might have worked better. We begin with an airport showdown as Aneeka tries to board a plane for America. The scene is undercut by implausible dialog. We plunge into the characters’ lives, lived intensely and hermetically: we see family members in their Pakistani-Muslim identities and in their Pakistani-British neighborhoods, interacting almost exclusively with their own people. It is noteworthy that, during my reading of Home Fire, a son of Pakistani immigrants, Sajid Javid, actually did become Home Secretary. Clearly, Shamsie knows her turf.
Like his father, the 19-year-old Parvais seems to have gone over to Isis, while sister Isma too has disappeared, to college in America, where she improbably meets the drifting, charming Eamonn, “a young man of startling looks.” She knows about his family; he learns about hers. They drink many cups of coffee, and have no friends or significant connections other than their families in the UK, whom we meet by skype. The author then whisks us to the UK, sets up Aneeka (Parvaiz’s twin) with Eamonn, and connects us to people thrashing their way forward as members of an ethnic minority—people almost without a state, like so many others in Europe, refugees from war zones and reprisals. They are allowed in Britain but live under suspicion. Terrorism is never far away.
Shamsie offers us few other characters against whom to measure or understand her protagonists, almost as if they are not really in the world. And they are not: they are in a play, Shamsie’s adaptation of Antigone. It works as machinery, but felt that, despite the brilliant plotting of this retelling, the outcome was largely foretold—and what is a novel without suspense?
Nonetheless, Home Fire does have the weight of major work, and does not betray the tragic nature of its source. We are brought into very difficult relations between sisters and between families, and are placed in the cross-rips of an immigrant culture and a world susceptible to both the nihilism and banality of terrorism and the disastrous paranoia of the reactionaries. Shamsie gives us no relief from the intensity of these relations and political realities, and often makes us feel the pain of characters who have no possibility of happiness or of saving themselves.
Have you considered the impact of terrorism on families? Have you been involved in providing assistance to immigrants and refugees? Please share your experiences.