The fact that I am a white, non-Muslim woman who happens to think that Kamila Shamsie (A God in Every Stone)’s Home Fire is one of the most important and emotionally devastating books to hit shelves this year is actually quite significant.
I wish it wasn’t.
I wish that it was a common thing to reach for a new perspective when we reach for a new book, but it isn’t. And I understand that it’s a wonderful thing to identify with characters in more traditional ways, but when we reach for something new, we find things to identify with. Which is both reassuring and unnerving when one becomes immersed in this particular novel.
Longlisted for 2017’s Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for 2018's Women's Prize for Fiction, Home Fire is a retelling of Antigone, one of Greek Sophocles’ most famous plays. In Shamsie’s version, Isma and Aneeka are the sisters of Parvaiz, a nineteen-year-old youth who leaves London to join the media arm of ISIS. This twist in the tale comes after an ISIS recruiter takes Parvaiz under his wing and tells him how his jihadist father was tortured at Bagram and died en route to Guantánamo Bay. Regretting his choice, Parvaiz is killed trying to escape his new life in Raqqa (before you cry ‘spoiler alert!’ let me remind you that his burial is the inciting incident of the original play that was written nearly 2,500 years ago).
Home Fire is largely the story of young Aneeka (an absolutely unstoppable force) trying to bring her brother home.
The new British Home Secretary shares the siblings’ Pakistani and Muslim background, but he’s distanced himself from his roots. As part of drastic reforms he mandates that, since Parvaiz made himself an enemy of the state, his body cannot be returned to his family in London.
I loved that the plot was propelled forward through each character’s viewpoint. Not only did this provide a well-rounded picture of a complicated issue, but it also provided an opportunity for compassion when it is far easier to nurture a fearful, us vs. them mentality. I recognized all too clearly the stereotypes that were perpetuated on the British side of things; the public opinion that “not all Muslims are bad but...we should monitor their internet history, their private conversations, their reading material, etc.” But the color of my skin has sheltered me from the understanding that profiling is something that many Muslims have to plan for, not just merely imagine. I didn’t realize that innocent comments from children could mean they’re removed from their family’s care, or how much thought goes into whether or not being spit on is worth the risk of wearing a hijab.
In an era where radicalization is a constant concern, it’s helpful to view it through the eyes of this Muslim family and the eyes of the government at once. In fact, that mode of storytelling was what made this book so wonderfully surprising; even though it was retelling a very old story, it still felt fresh.
Author Kamila Shamsie pays homage to each of Sophocles’ characters by giving her’s similar names, but she leaves the rest of the parallels for the reader to find, which I quite liked, having acted in the play in high school. A story about a family divided by politics (and just plain obstinance, let’s be real) is timeless, as evidenced by the fact that it’s still popular today. We still have this idea that people can be reduced to sides, rather than valuing their humanity regardless.
Aneeka has an earnest faith and unswerving loyalty to her family despite the disgrace her brother Parvaiz has caused. Aneeka loves and mourns her brother, regardless of whether his behavior was right or wrong.
Now let me be clear: while it’s really important to have new, unexpected perspectives, it doesn’t excuse murder. Extremism in the name of any religion or creed is just evil by another name. A story like this helps us as readers and members of society to rethink our anger and fear and who we chose to direct it at. It also encourages us to consider the others we don’t always think about who are being deeply affected by these terrible events.
What made Home Fire even better was that author Shamsie is a Brit, but she spent many years growing up in Karachi, Pakistan. She understands the family ties, the racism, the pain. She can write an Aneeka that is passionate, clever, and pious as she seeks to save her brother at any cost. An Isma that sacrifices more than most women her age in order to see her family succeed in the harsh Western world. And she can write a Parvaiz that is wounded and alone, seeking acceptance and purpose when it’s offered. But she can also write a British Home Secretary that gauges the political climate and moves accordingly, depending on what is required to protect his position.
Home Fire is a bold retelling. So bold, in fact, that I felt like I was reading something off of the banned books list. And then I remembered that not only was this book not banned, it’s been longlisted for one of literature’s most prestigious awards. Something that I hope is a good indication of where society is headed. And although it was hard going, it was incredibly moving and insightful as well. Absolutely worth the tears, anger, and heartbreak that can sometimes come with a challenging, life-changing read such as this one.