Kamila Shamsie's Home First has an addictive vitality

The Man Booker-nominated novel begins with an airport scene that will be familiar to many Muslims
September 13, 2017

Kamila Shamsie’s Man Booker-nominated novel Home Fire begins with a scene that will be familiar to many Muslims. A western airport, a suspicious security guard and a humiliated subject whose belongings are displayed for inspection. The traveller in question is Isma who has just started her PhD in America. Luckily, she has rehearsed her answers with her younger sister Aneeka, whom she has raised along with her twin brother since their parents’ deaths.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Isma has more reason than most to be worried. Her father abandoned the family years ago to become a jihadist and died while being taken to Guantanamo, leaving the shadow of suspicion forever on his children. And her brother Parvaiz, following in his footsteps, has joined Islamic State.

To complicate things further, Aneeka gets romantically involved with Eamonn Lone, son of the assimilated British Muslim Home Secretary Karamat Lone. The affair’s ultimate outcome will be familiar to readers who know Sophocles’ Antigone, of which Home Fire is a modern re-telling: after her brother’s death, Aneeka appeals to her lover’s father for him to be buried in Britain, not be banished back to Pakistan.

Shamsie’s prowess as a storyteller infuses Home Fire with an addictive vitality. Her deft delineation of gradations of religiosity (the elder Lone’s scepticism of the hijab, for example) and class (the younger Lone’s posh west London digs against the dowdy environs of Aneeka’s Wembley) reveal the complexities of a community too often reduced to stereotypes. It is not just the skill with which Shamsie wraps this story around its Sophoclean bones that makes Home Fire distinctive; it is also the care with which she humanises her characters.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)