Rating: 3 stars
When this came out and I read reviews of it, I wasn’t particularly grabbed by what was said. It’s one of the books on this year’s March Madness Reading Challenge over at The Reader’s Room and, because of its ranking in the pool, it’s one of the books I chose to make the final, so I thought I should read it. It’s also on the longlist for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.
I don’t know what to say about it. It was slow to start, but then kept me gripped as the story unfurled, like one of the main characters removing her hijab.
I don’t know Sophocles’s play Antigone, but the fly leaf of the book jacket informed me that Home Fire is a contemporary reimagining of Antigone. Perhaps an awareness of the play might have given the novel greater depth for me. As it was, it felt like Kamila Shamsie was hovering over the surface of something significant without really cracking the surface.
The action had tension, and the way the threads of the story wove together was clever. The story is that of two sisters and their brother who has headed off to Syria and apparently joined ISIS. One sister is his twin and she receives messages from him that suggest that he wants to return to Britain. What follows is how the sisters become connected with the posh drifter son of a politician of Muslim background and an Irish-American millionaire and why, and how the brother comes to realise that jihad isn’t the glorious endeavour promised to him. If it was a drama on the BBC I’d probably watch it, love it, and then forget it. A bit like The Last Post, recently.
I feel the same way about the story in this book. It has entertained me, but it lacked authenticity somehow, and felt too glossy and shallow. If I put it alongside something like Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man, which has a similar feel to it, I’d say Forna’s is the better book because there’s a humanity to it that I didn’t get from Shamsie’s novel.
None of the characters felt entirely real to me. There was a lack of depth that interrupted my interest in them. The two sisters seemed like pen profiles constructed from ideas of what a devout British Muslim woman with a jihadi father and brother, who is trying to live on her terms, might act like. As though Isma and her sister Aneeka had been focus-grouped into existence. The same with the posh drifter, and his parents, and the kindly older Asian family that lives upstairs from him. Aneeka in particular was hard to take. From her behaviour, I spent a good portion of the book thinking she was in her late twenties. Kamsie has written her much older than her nineteen years.
Only the jihadi brother Parvaiz had a believability to him. He is written the age he is. He is portrayed as sulky, overlooked, resentful and searching for some meaning to his life. He hero-worships his father. He is ripe for the plucking. And yet, he didn’t feel entirely real either.
One thing that changed for me as a result of reading this book is that I have a different appreciation of why some British Muslims make the choice to go to Syria and join what they think of as a holy war. I hadn’t felt much interest in the possible motivations of people who believe that such a brutal, hate-filled organisation as ISIS are in the right. I hadn’t cared why they might feel angry or resentful or any of the teenage rage variants to such an extent that they think a suicide mission in a war zone is preferable to life in the UK. This book at least made me think about that aspect of people’s thought processes. On balance, though, I think Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told To Come Alone would be a better choice for someone really trying to understand what makes young British Muslims sign up to become jihadis or jihadi brides.
It’s a well written book, and I imagine that the reason it has garnered so much praise is because of the subject matter. It’s a polarising subject and Shamsie does deliver a story that shows British Muslim families of non-white heritage as just the same as non-Muslim white families. The Austin bombings happened just before I started reading the novel and something that a childhood friend of the perpetrator said about him chimed with the backstory Shamsie gives Parvaiz. It had to do with strong religious beliefs, a feeling of not fitting in, and a lack of direction in life. An open target for fundamentalism, in other words. That skin colour and religious beliefs are the deciding factors in whether you are labelled a terrorist or mentally disturbed is quite something. It seems to me that the issue is one of young people not feeling they have a purpose in the world most of us inhabit and finding a different, extremist purpose among other mentally disturbed people. Skin colour and flavour of religion doesn’t come into it. Very little separates the toxicity of fundamentalist Islam and that of fundamentalist Christianity. But many people prefer the simplicity of labelling those who seem other as terrorists and those who seem similar as misunderstood.
I might pick up Mekhennet’s book, see what she has to say on the subject.