“The story of Antigone re-written for the twenty-first century”, this is part of the blurb that accompanies the new novel by Kamila Shamsie. Anyone familiar with Antigone may wonder whether one single, notable and noble act replicated in the narrative of Home Fire, it quite sufficient to say that this is Antigone re-worked.
Antigone demonstrates a wilful disregard for the wishes of King Creon of Thebes in demanding a decent burial for her brother, Polynices, after both her brothers have been killed fighting about which of them should be on the Theban throne. Creon, who takes the throne after the death of these two, decrees that there should be no mourning for Polynices, or burial, on pain of death. Of Eteocles there is no mention!
Kamila Shamsie‘s book has much more to it than this single demonstration of rebellion. The novel is divided into five parts, the first deals with the meeting between Isma, elder sister of the twins Anneka and Parvaiz, and Eamonn the only son of Karamat Lone, a British MP; the second part is Eamonn’s story and how he gets involved with Aneeka, or her with him; the third is the story of Parvaiz; the fourth is Aneeka’s story and the final part is Karamat’s take on the whole situation.
This is the experience of British Muslims living today in a Britain of jihadi terrorism, suspicion, rejection and distrust; it is also the life of a close-knit family who have endured terrible, frightening and fracturing experiences and it is also the story of the lies and misrepresentations that recruiters to The Caliphate use to persuade young people to join the jihad and go to Syria to fight or work or marry into The State and at the same time, it is also the story of how the police, the politicians and indeed the families try to prevent this happening.
In this novel, all these factors clash around the lives of these young people. Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz have no parents, their father was being taken to Guantanamo from Bagram, but died suddenly before he was put on the plane; their mother diminished by this event keeled over dead while at work; Isma becomes de facto mother to the twins and they live with a neighbour in Preston Road, Wembley, Aunty Naseem.
At the beginning of the novel, Isma has won a scholarship to an American university and she is in the airport being interrogated. Her passport, ticket and boarding pass taken, her bags searched and her plane taking off without her – but her visa and everything is in order. So finally, having caused her to miss her plane, the authorities come back and breezily tell her that it all checks out and she is free to go – knowing all the time that the boarding pass which they return to her is useless. This may not be typical for every British Muslim from Pakistan leaving this country, but it does happen to a few (and worse).
It is, in many ways, the tone of the whole book: how white British people, especially those in authority, treat people who are different. Karamat Lone, also a Muslim as it happens, voices these positions in his capacity as an MP, sometimes saying that if “they” want to be British they must give up all their foreign practices and ideologies and worse yet, saying about the family that Eamonn has become involved with:
“I know their names. Where they come from. Who they were before they went. There’s only one Preston Road. It’s the last place in England I’d expect to find that kind of thing happening. But that one [Parvaiz], he had exceptional circumstances. Terrorism as family trade. Illustrative of how much you need to do to root out this kind of thing. I mean, literally, grab by the very roots and pull. Pull the children out of those environments before they’re old enough for the poison to seep in.”
Karamat’s intransigence leads inevitably onwards to the final denouement. His misplaced condemnation of his son’s character, his chronic misjudgement of Parvaiz and of his twin sister, Aneeka, and everything about who they really are leads back to his expressed belief in the roots of terrorism. Even when confronted with an alternative narrative, Karamat refuses to move to defuse an appalling situation.
This ought to be deeply moving, but somehow didn’t quite manage it. Shocking certainly, and in places disagreeable to read but it never engaged me emotionally. Which is not quite to say that it was not worth reading, but compared, say, to Jean Anouilh‘s Antigone or The Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney it does not hit the mark. I am not sure why.