‘Isma was going to miss her flight. The ticket wouldn’t be refunded because the airline took no responsibility for passengers who arrived at the airport three hours ahead of the departure time and were escorted to an interrogation room. She had expected the interrogation, but not the hours of waiting that would precede it, nor that it would feel so humiliating to have the contents of her suitcase inspected. She’d made sure not to pack anything that would invite comment or questions – no Quran, no family pictures, no books on her areas of academic interest – but, even so, the officer took hold of every item of Isma’s clothing and ran it between her thumb and fingers, not so much searching for hidden pockets as judging the quality of the material’.
And so begins Kamila Shamsie’s award-winning latest novel, Home Fire, described by numerous people as ‘the tale of our times’, though, interestingly, a reworking of the age-old Greek mythology Antigone, dramatised by Sophocles circa 441BC. Pondering the timeless dilemma between love for family and loyalty to the state, Shamsie’s Antigone is Aneeka, a temperamental but fiercely loving nineteen-year-old twin living in North London. Mirroring our society as it is right now, suspicions are on the rise and tensions are high. Particularly between the British muslim and non-muslim communities.
Aneeka and her twin brother, the quieter, more reserved Parvaiz, were brought up by their older sister and voice of reason, Irma, after their mother passed away when they were kids. Giving up her studies in order to support her siblings, Irma is finally getting to live her dream of becoming an academic. Home Fire begins with Irma about to board a flight to America where she has been accepted onto a PhD programme in Massachusetts to study sociology. One could be mistaken for thinking that the trauma and embarrassment she experiences at the airport is due just to her religious beliefs (and I’m sure this is the case for many muslims travelling in and out of British airports). The obstacles she faces on a day to day basis due to her identity is told with such detached clarity and wry cleverness.
However, Isma’s family holds many dark secrets in its past and present – secrets well-known to the authorities. When she encounters the son of the British home secretary – a politician who has denounced his muslim upbringing – a few weeks later in a cafe in Amherst, their instant connection is more than just a budding friendship. Isma and Eamon’s families are intricately entwined. Unbeknown to Eamon, Isma’s family has had dealings with his father – the Lone Wolf, as he is nicknamed – way back when Irma herself was just a kid. It is the genuine, growing attachment she feels towards Eamon that allows her to confide in him about the history of her absent father – a jihadi who was deported to Guantanamo Bay and allegedly died in custody.
Unlike Sophocles’ Antigone, it is the younger sister, Aneeka, who acts as the ‘young rebel’, defying the orders of the state and others who dictate how she should live her life, in order to honour her brother. Parvaiz is the only person who gets Aneeka. As twins they have a special bond that transcends normal familial relationships. However, Parvaiz has crossed the point of no return. Feeling isolated and stagnant in northwest London as both his sisters work towards exciting futures, Parvaiz is approached by a man claiming to know his father outside the greengrocers where he works. Flattered by the this man’s interest and belief in him, Parvaiz makes the decision to join Isis in Syria. Stopping at nothing to have her brother returned to her, to his home, Aneeka uses herself and her influence on awe-struck Eamon, who has fallen under her spell.
The ending of Home Fire will tear you apart – at least it did for me. By placing her tale of Antigone in the present, Shamsie explores the current themes of cultural tensions and radicalisation in modern-day London but with compassion and humanity. As each chapter takes on the viewpoint of a different character, our sympathies extend to each and every person involved in this tragedy. From the older sister/mother figure of Irma, to the lost and frightened Parvaiz who is effectively trapped in the hell of his own naive choosing, to the desperation and loyalty Aneeka feels towards her twin brother. This is a family that has been torn apart by the moral conflicts of family, justice, love and country for far too long. As Shamsie warns us before her story begins, with a quote from Antogone translated by Seamus Heaney, ‘The ones we love… are enemies of the state’.