By Kamila Shamsie, Riverhead Books, 276 pages, $26
Kamila Shamsie’s challenging and engrossing new novel, Home Fire, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, has been given a ghastly urgency by the attacks in London in June, and the focus in their aftermath on “homegrown” terrorists.
Like Khuram Butt, one of the London Bridge assailants, Parvaiz, the misguided young catalyst of Shamsie’s novel, is a supporter of the Arsenal soccer team. He and his Daesh recruiter, a supporter of Real Madrid, bond over their mutual admiration for Mesut Ozil, the German star of Turkish descent who has played for both teams, and is a practicing Muslim. It’s a tiny but resonant detail (one the author doesn’t pause to unpack), indicative of the subtle intimacy of Shamsie’s work.
The Pakistani-born author of six previous novels — this is her first set predominantly in Britain, where she now resides — she’s acutely attuned to the vagaries of allegiance, whether to nation, faith, family or club. Our loyalties, she suggests, are far more complex, more shifting, than the fatuous “cricket test” once suggested by the Tory politician Norman Tebbit for measuring an immigrant’s assimilation.
The “Home” of Shamsie’s title refers both to Britain — a key character rises to the post of home secretary, the minister responsible for immigration and security — and to the London households of two very different immigrant families, the Pashas and the Lones.
Isma Pasha has raised her siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, since their mother and grandmother died; the Lones are Karamat, a rising political star, his feckless son, Eamonn, and his Irish-American wife, Terry. The Pashas are wary Muslims — conscious of the general cloud of suspicion hovering over the community, and secretive about their own particular family history.
Karamat, by contrast, is a public figure, at once highly assimilated (a “coconut” to his critics) and proudly exceptional (he revels in the nickname “Lone Wolf”), while Eamonn is so blithely deracinated that he asks Isma, in reference to her headwear, “Is that a style thing or a Muslim thing?” These two families — separated, since both are British after all, by class as much as piety — are swiftly, if somewhat contrivedly, drawn together. What seems at first like a potential love triangle twists into more complex political entanglements, though a recurring theme is how youthful radicalisation is a form of ideological infatuation: “We thought it was some kind of secret affair, his first time in love,” Isma notes of her brother’s furtive behaviour.
Shamsie is achingly good at capturing the claustrophobic self-consciousness of British Muslims. Aneeka translates GWM for Eamonn as “Googling While Muslim.” Isma, a PhD candidate, is wise to the othering effects of language, wryly noting the superfluousness of “chai tea” and “na’an bread,” as well as more insidious word choices:
“The 7/7 terrorists were never described by the media as ‘British terrorists’. Even when the word ‘British’ was used, it was always ‘British of Pakistani descent’ or ‘British Muslim’ or, my favourite, ‘British passport holders’, always something interposed between their Britishness and terrorism.”
The pull of competing identities upon these characters is further played out in the names they choose or that are bestowed upon them. Parvaiz’s father, who long ago abandoned the family to become an Islamist, nonetheless adopted “Abu Parvaiz” — father of Parvaiz — as his nom de guerre (a phrase Parvaiz initially hears as “numb digger,” demonstrating a typically British tin ear for French). While Karamat enjoys his Lone Wolf sobriquet, Aneeka is crudely called “Knickers” by the tabloids.
In fact these names disguise more deeply buried identities. Isma is a stand-in for Ismene, Eamonn for Haemon, Aneeka for Antigone — all figures from the tragic Greek myth, told most famously by Sophocles.
We’re seeing a glut of novelistic rehashes of classical and classic texts. Margaret Atwood recently followed up her retelling of the Odyssey in The Penelopiad with a reimagining of The Tempest in Hag-Seed. But Shamsie’s choice is nonetheless notable. She places herself in the same predicament as her characters. Just as they wrestle with their clashing duties to family, faith and nation, she wrestles with their prescribed narrative roles. Beyond this, of course, it’s a shrewdly subversive move to tell this immigrant story via a tale so central to the Western canon. In doing so, Shamsie quietly capsizes easy sound bites about a “clash of civilisations.”
Still, for all its brilliance, there’s some cost to this strategy. The timelessness of the tale at times feels at odds with its timeliness, the fated quality of the narrative at odds with the psychological choices of the individual figures. This is perhaps an inherent risk in translation from stage to page, one that dogs the latter part of the book.
There’s an ambitious stylistic shift — Aneeka’s section is told in poetic fragments interrupted by a chorus of media reports — but the overall effect is distancing. We lose touch with Aneeka, and never quite get close to Karamat, whose political crisis feels schematic, less inevitable than predictable. The upshot is a headlong final act that aims at stark political theatre but at times comes off as only stagy. Tellingly, much of this closing action is viewed through screens, the way most of us engage with terror. And yet, at its finest, the quiet emotional power of Home Fire is that it draws us close to that horror - behind the scenes of tragedy.
–New York Times News Service
Peter Ho Davies’s most recent novel is The Fortunes.