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'Home Fire' is an exquisite modern tragedy about families caught between religion, politics

Kamila Shamsie uses a conflict zone to explore combustible human relationships.

Home Fire By Kamila Shamsie Penguin 288 pp.
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  • Terry Hong

That Home Fire is among the recently announced 2017 Man Booker Dozen means it arrives stateside with quite the notable stamp of approval. The novel is considerably more affecting than that other longlist novel currently in the media spotlight, which should ensure a well-deserved shortlist nod come September for Kamila Shamsie.

Easy verdict? Read this.

From the epigraph – “The ones we love ... are enemies of the state” – to the final word – “peace” – Shamsie encapsulates her exquisite modern tragedy: The quote originates in Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sophocles’ “Antigone” from which Shamsie luminously updates her auspicious plot. Her last, perfect word serves as a contemporary, against-all-odds, global prayer.

Karachi-raised, US-educated, London-domiciled Shamsie (“Burnt Shadows,” “Broken Verses”) draws on her hybrid background in presenting two British-Pakistani families caught between loyalty, religion, politics, and the international war on terror. To fully appreciate “Home Fire,” familiarity with its ancient Greek inspiration is not essential; indeed, attempts to align the 5th-century-BCE details with Shamsie’s 21st-century rendition might prove distracting. Again, a reminder to just read.

The Pasha family’s history is undoubtedly grievous. After the father’s mysterious death linked to terrorist activities, the grandmother and mother also passed away. Only Isma, now 28, and twin siblings, 19-year-old Aneeka and Parvais, survive. Ready to reclaim her life after raising the twins, Isma leaves London to pursue her PhD in Massachusetts. Her field is sociology, because she “’wanted to understand why the world is so unfair.’”

In a chance coffee-shop encounter, she meets fellow Brit Eamonn Lone, whose father Karamat – the son of Pakistani immigrants married to a blue-blooded Irish-American heiress – is now the UK’s home secretary in charge of internal affairs. Isma and Eamonn’s acquaintance grows quickly toward “’bay-takalufi,’” an Urdu word that describes the mutual ease of being “’[c]omfortable enough to forget good table manners,’” but their relationship is abbreviated when Eamonn returns to London, albeit not without a package of M&Ms he promises to post to Isma’s Aunty (by affection-rather-than-blood) Naseem.

What Eamonn could have dropped into the mail, he decides to hand-deliver, enabling him to meet Isma’s sister Aneeka. Despite eliciting an initial “look of disgust he deserved” after a shameless pick-up line, Eamonn and Aneeka almost immediately become “'each other’s secret.’” Aneeka’s insistence for isolated privacy is not without cause: Aneeka wears the hijab; Eamonn’s father advises young British Muslim students, “Don’t set yourself apart in the way you dress ... [b]ecause if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism ... but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multiethnic, multireligious, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours.”

Missing from both Isma and Aneeka’s lives in the midst of leaving and loving is their brother, Aneeka’s twin Parvais. The “weaker, sicklier twin” since birth, suckled by their mother who had only enough milk for one, the teenage Parvais is overshadowed by his sisters’ strengths. His fragile male ego – and his father’s legacy – make him a perfect target for radicalization: He’s fled London for Syria where he’s been trained to become “the terrorist son of a terrorist father.” Dehumanized by the horrors he’s recorded – “beheadings, crucifixions, whipping” – Parvais is desperate to come home. But the law, unequivocally vocalized by Eamonn’s father, is not forgiving. Dead or alive, Parvais’s return to London faces epic obstacles. In working toward reunion, bonds between family, lovers, citizens, and governments will be tested, strained, and irreparably broken.

What leads up to the concluding (shocking) tragedy is revealed in five parts, seemingly from five perspectives, that of Isma, Eamonn, Parvais, Aneeka, and Karamat. Most notable is Aneeka’s penultimate section, which is told more through external viewpoints, including television and newspaper reports, and even trending Twitter hashtags, underlining how ancient classics remain as timely as ever (will we humans ever learn?). Shamsie, who has matured as global citizen and international writer in the age of social media, goes beyond mere plot adaptation to explore the nature of storytelling itself: who gets to tell the story, how will the story get retold, which story might last to become history.

Through millennia, “Antigone” has proven to be a narrative to claim and reshape again and again. Curious readers might remember (or discover anew) Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s “The Watch” (2012) – an “Antigone” set in Afghanistan – which also chooses a terror-filled conflict zone to explore combustible human relationships. Although just one in a substantial library of “Antigones" through centuries, cultures, and countries, Shamsie’s latest is a compelling, stupendous stand-out to be witnessed, honored, and deeply commended.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

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