The seventh novel by Pakistan-born London resident Kamila Shamsie, a former Granta Best Of Young British novelist, feels particularly relevant to our world today. Perhaps more than the other Man Booker longlisted novels I’ve read so far this feels especially for our times, with the most relevance to our modern lives. Strange then, that this is based upon one of the oldest recorded stories, the Greek myth of Antigone, most famously written as a tragic play by Sophocles in about 442 BC.
I didn’t know the myth beforehand and I’m actually rather glad I didn’t, although it did make me want to seek it out once I’d finished Shamsie’s adaptation. I went with one of her recommended versions and listened on spoken word CD to another 2017 Man Booker longlisted author Ali Smith who narrates her children’s book “The Story Of Antigone” (2013). In an interview following the story she says of this source material;
“It’s the kind of story that will always be relevant for all sorts of reasons because some things never change no matter what century we’re in and no matter where we are in history and it is a story about what matters to human beings and how human beings make things meaningful and how we act towards one another and what power is, what it makes us do and how much or how little power human beings really have.”
I’m not actually going to tell you more about the myth as it will give too much information as to where Shamsie’s plot-line will go. If you know it, you know it. If not I don’t want to spoil things for you as developments certainly took me by surprise. It does involve a chilling attempt to stand up against the authorities.
Shamsie has recast the main characters as a Muslim family from Wembley. Isma, the oldest daughter begins the novel by travelling to the US to commence a long-delayed Sociology PHD leaving her younger law student sister Aneeka at home and Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz removed from the family. Isma had been a mother figure to the twins after they were orphaned. We learn early on that their father had died whilst being transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
Isma is attempting to pick up the pieces after family tragedies and the shame and distrust caused. She has a chance encounter with a family acquaintance, Eammon, son of a British Muslim politician whose career, after setbacks, is in the ascendancy. On Eamonn’s return to the UK he offers to take a bag of M&M’s to Aneeka setting up a catalogue of events which will lead to tragedy and a startling international incident.
I read very few books as explicitly political as this and did find it difficult to hone in as to what my feelings were or the author’s stance on incidents. This is because the issues are extremely complex and involves the prejudices of nations, the power of religions and the media. Shamsie is certainly to be applauded for her bravery in tackling these themes head-on. The fact that she does it pitch-perfectly in a tale which is brilliantly realised, both unpredictable and chillingly inevitable borders on the extraordinary. I found it totally compelling to read but harder to always gauge my responses. Shamsie is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways. This feels like a very important novel for our times and yet has an age-old story as its framework. Although I wasn’t aware of the relevance to Antigone as I was reading, it does give the work resonance and great authority. So here we have it, my first 5 star Man Booker longlist read. The battle is on…………..
Home Fire was published by Bloomsbury Circus in August 2017