Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, on the long list for the 2017 Booker Prize, has a tricky, deceptive structure.
For most of the novel’s first half, it’s an intimate family tragedy with a few political overtones. But in its second half, it expands outward into a more epic work. The transition doesn’t entirely succeed — but it’s always beautiful.
Isma has spent her young adulthood raising her siblings on her own: Aneeka is beautiful, headstrong, and determined to become a lawyer, and her twin brother Parvaiz is aimless and searching. Their mother is dead. Their father was a jihadist they barely knew, and he died on his way to Guantánamo. But as the novel opens, the twins have grown up, and Isma, now in her late 20s, can at last return to her normal life and move from London to America to finish grad school.
It looks like a family story, about a family’s intimate, treacherous betrayals. Parvaiz’s search for direction eventually leads him to follow in his father’s footsteps, without even thinking to consult his sisters about what his decision will mean for the family. Isma, in turn, sets the Home Office on him without a second thought: She has a visa to think about, and it’s hard enough to travel across the Atlantic as a Muslim without harboring a jihadist, too. Aneeka is horrified by both betrayals — but when she meets the boy whom isolated, lonely Isma has fallen in love with, she sets about seducing him with few qualms. He’s the son of the home secretary, and he might help her get Parvaiz back.
And initially, the political angles of the book appear to be there to serve the story of this family. When you live under a state that considers your citizenship to be contingent, Shamsie suggests, family betrayal becomes all but inevitable. Someone might Google the wrong thing, or look too interested in what happened to a terrorist, and then the whole family is on a list. (“Don’t stand next to this guy, don’t follow this guy on Twitter, don’t download that Noam Chomsky book,” recites one character.) There is no way out. The state has destroyed the family.
But in its second half, Home Fire upends all your expectations. Because it isn’t just any family tragedy. It’s Sophocles’s Antigone, dragged out of ancient Greece and into a contemporary Muslim family. Which means the intimacy of the novel’s first half has to go, because Greek tragedy requires epic, larger-than-life intensity.
In Antigone, two brothers have killed each other as part of a civil war. The king decrees that the loyalist brother will receive a state funeral, but the rebel, Polyneices, will lie unburied in the wilderness until his corpse is eaten by animals, as punishment for his crimes. Polyneices’s sister Antigone, in an ecstasy of mixed grief and piety, begs for her brother to receive the proper funeral rites, but again and again the king denies her.
It’s a family story on one level, but mostly it’s about the king’s hubris in pitting in his own law against the law of the gods, who demand that Polyneices be buried. Antigone is a heroine not just because she offers her family the proper respect, but because she offers respect to the gods.
As Home Fire telescopes out to accommodate Antigone’s structure, it loses some of what made the first half so compelling. The careful portrait of this specific family unravels so that Shamsie can shift her focus to enemy states. Clever, practical Isma all but disappears (her analogue in Antigone is a very minor character), and she is so clearly Shamsie’s best invention that her absence leaves a noticeable void in the story. And Parvaiz’s slow brainwashing by ISIS, and subsequent struggle against his brainwashing, only narrowly avoids becoming a wholesale cliché.
What stays constant is Shamsie’s careful, lovely prose. She will deftly break your heart in the moment when Aneeka finally comes to her brother’s unburied body, in an “apocalyptic mess of a park” where “the only thing that remained unburied was the face of the dead boy.” And in the book’s final scene, the intimacy of the first half unites with the scope of the second half in a single, transcendent moment that will leave you breathless.