What would you do if your love of family violated the dictates of government, especially if those dictates appear unnecessarily harsh and devoid of compassion? This is the situation Kamila Shamsie explores in her novel, Home Fire, based on the classical Greek play, Antigone.
Shamsie clothes the story of Antigone in contemporary garb. The setting is England after 9/11. The story is of three grown children of Pakistani origin, orphaned at a young age. Ali Pasha, their jihadist father, died under mysterious circumstances at Bagram. The lives of his children intertwine with another Muslim family of Pakistani origin, the family of Karamat Lone, the newly appointed British Home Secretary.
Isma Pasha, the eldest, assumes care-taking responsibilities for her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. Aneeka studies law while her twin is aimless, lacks ambition, and grapples with understanding the legacy of his father. His vulnerability and connection to a jihadi father attracts the attention of terrorists. They systematically and methodically recruit him to join their ranks.
The families’ lives intertwine when Eamonn, the son of the British Home Secretary, is seduced by Aneeka. Her initial intent is to exploit her influence on him to facilitate her brother’s return to England. But Parvaiz is killed by terrorists while making his way to the British Consulate. It is at this point the parallels with the story of Antigone become very evident.
Because Parvaiz’s British citizenship has been revoked due to his terrorist activities, Karamat Lone denies permission for his body to be returned to England for burial near his mother. Aneeka decides to take matters into her own hands and flies to Pakistan to force the issue by defiantly holding vigil near her brother’s corpse. Her stance garners widespread media coverage. Although both Karamat Lone’s wife and son urge him to show compassion and allow the burial to take place in England, he insists upon strict adherence to the law. Eamonn defies his father by flying to Pakistan to be with the woman he loves. Both Eamonn and Aneeka die wrapped in each other’s arms in an explosive ending.
Shamsie explores the issue of how much of what we are and what we do is contingent upon our family background. The novel opens with Isma pursuing her education in America. She is portrayed as a complex character who informs government officials about her brother’s activities to protect her sister. Unfortunately, her character recedes to the background as the novel progresses, giving prominence to her two siblings.
Parvaiz and Eamonn have in common their lack of ambition and indeterminate focus. But because one is the son of a jihadi and the other the son of an important government official, their lives take completely different paths.
Unlike her sister, Aneeka is uncompromising in her loyalties and flaunts her defiance of the state. She shows no hesitation in taking a very visible and provocative stand in support of her brother’s right to be buried near his mother in England.
This is a powerful book about the obligations of family, the fractured experience of Muslim immigrants living in the West after 9/11, and the politics that embroil and ultimately destroy two families. The prose was unremarkable, and the characters’ motivations could have been explored in greater depth. Plot-driven and slow to start, the novel gradually picks up pace and increases in intensity until the climactic, explosive ending.
Shamsie gives contemporary relevance to the age-old clash between familial love and loyalty versus adherence to civic law. Her exploration raises profound questions about the choices young immigrants make and the forces that drive them toward those choices.
A compelling read.