Islamic State and its young recruits, the fraught relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in (and beyond) the UK, and homeland security: Shamsie’s cutting right to the heart of contemporary global politics in Home Fire, her seventh novel. But it’s also a love story, and an exploration of familial bonds, and of loyalty, fear, loneliness and hope: not to go too heavy on the adjectives, it’s bleak and daring, and yet honest, funny, and touching, and – bit of a spoiler – we’re super happy to see it on this year’s Man Booker longlist.
Plot-wise, Home Fire is a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, set mostly in contemporary London, and it’s got exactly the awful domino-effect of proper tragedy that this template would lead you to expect: Shamsie sets up all her pins from the very first page and you know they’re all falling hard. And although it’s fairly clear (even if you haven’t read or seen Sophocles’ original, you’ll know where she’s headed) how it’s going to pan out, each subsequent collapse is nonetheless exponentially harder to bear, as her characters’ lives implode according to the fear-driven logic of post-9/11 politics. The book’s power doesn’t spring, though, from Shamsie’s use of current affairs (as conveniently high-concept as that happens to be), or even from Sophocles’ tried and tested plot outline, but rather from the human simplicity of its central question: what would you do if your loved ones were in a similar fix?
The fix itself: when twenty-eight year-old Isma was just a kid, her father, Adil Pasha, abandoned his family in the UK for a career in Chechnya and Afghanistan as a self-styled jihadi; he was caught, locked up and likely tortured in Bagram, and died on a transport to Guantanamo Bay. His family never found out any more details, despite his mother’s lobbying the government for an investigation: British Muslims are better off without such traitors, said neighbourhood-acquaintance-turned-politician, Karamat Lone, as he refused to help. Skip forward a few years, when Isma’s own mother and her paternal grandmother die in close succession, and we see Isma putting her life on hold to raise her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvais. Forward again, and she’s off at last to the USA to study for her PhD in sociology, while at home Aneeka enrolls in her own law degree and Parvais, aspiring sound recordist and artist, heads to Karachi for some work experience. But Parvais isn’t actually en route to Karachi at all: unbeknownst to his sisters, he’s made a new friend, Farooq, a man who once fought with the father Parvais never knew, and Farooq has arranged for Parvais to join the media wing of ISIS over in Raqqa. Once his family find out the truth, Aneeka, terrified for her brother, starts an affair with Eamonn Lone, disappointing son to Karamat (who’s now Home Secretary), hoping that he can pull some strings – but the two get on better than she’d expected. Will Eamonn help Parvais? Will Karamat help either of them? What can, or should, Isma do to protect Aneeka, now that Parvais is beyond her help? And – of course – what will happen to Parvais?
It’s a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of a very messy situation, and Shamsie pulls it off with absolute aplomb: every possible angle on all their actions is covered, and presented with delicacy and love – even Karamat, a character we’d bet all of Shamsie’s readers would love to hate, isn’t the easy cut-out Tory bastard (Shamsie doesn’t name his party, but we’re pretty sure he’s not with the Greens) that she might have made him; these are conflicted, realistic, vivid people caught in situations that are all too imaginable, from airport interrogations and first dates to orphanhood, family arguments and press conferences. Each chapter gives us the perspective of a different character, moving the plot forward while filling in the gaps and complicating the preceding viewpoint(s); each character is as compelling as the next, from Parvais’s alienation and excitement and panic, Isma’s hardline protectiveness, and Aneeka’s furious loyalty, to Karamat’s conviction, despite everything, that he’s helping his people. It’s also a page-turner: a searing take on the roles Muslims are being forced to play in British society (defensive, fearful, and culpable at all times); on the interplay between various international political forces regarding so-called fundamentalism; and on the overlap between familial and party and international politics, as both the Pasha and Lone families start to fall apart.
Any Cop?: It’s a fantastic read and a significant book, and it would be lovely if it were made required reading in schools. (Maybe we’ll need another general election first though, hey.) My money’s on it reaching the Booker shortlist.