With all the books I’ve been reading thanks to the lockdown, I decided to go back and try out some Pakistani authors as well. Ok, so I’ll be honest upfront- I have never read any of Kamila Shamsie’s book. Home Fire is the first book that I have read of hers, although I had heard a lot about her other book Kartography that is often cited as one of the best Pakistani novels. Phew! That guilty confession is out of the way.
Home Fire is a book that will appeal mostly to the Western readers because a lot of what happens in the book is something we in Pakistan have seen and read about one too many times, so it doesn’t come as a surprise. The interest factor dies down for me as I went further ahead in the novel because it does become somewhat predictable.
However, Shamsie does acknowledge in the book that Home Fire is basically a reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone. “Antigone is a tragedy written by Sophocles in the year 441 BCE and is a play about the aftermath of a civil war in which the two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polyneices, kill each other, where the new king and their successor, Creon, tries to punish Polyneices for his disloyalty by not burying him properly.” (Wikipedia).
So essentially, Home Fire is about three siblings, two sisters, Isma and Aneeka, and their brother Parvaiz. It’s about how the brother gets involved with ISIS. It’s about a man who enters the lives yhe two sisters. Themes of loyalty, friendships, love and sacrifice is what the novel is about.
The book jumps right into the discrimination Isma faces at the Heathrow airport on her way to the US for her studies. She is questioned about her travel and what she intends to study. Isma is the eldest sister and has raised her two younger siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, since their mother’s death. Unknown to them, their father is a jihadist. Isma makes it to the US where she stays with her tutor Hira. The 28 year old Isma spends a lot of time in the local coffee shop, where she meets Eemonn, the son of a Pakistani politician Karamat and his white American wife. Eemon is from London and is privileged enough to take a year off from work, in contrast to Isma’s humble beginnings.
While Eemon and Isma strike up a relationship, his father (who’s been made Home Secretary in London) doesn’t approve, which causes a little rift between the two lovebirds. Aneeka calls up Isma and expresses annoyance at why Isma told the police about their brother’s whereabouts and cuts of ties with her. We find out that the sisters tried to talk to an MP about their father’s disappearance, but the MP refused. The MP turns out to be Eemon’s father, and when Eemon finds this out, he is in an awkward position: defending his father, while at the same time in love with Isma. However, Isma sorts of breaks off with him, as she calls him “brother.”
Eemon travels to the sisters’ house in Wembley, and encounters Aneeka, who falls in love with him, even though she tells him to keep their relationship a secret. We find out that Aneeka had hidden the truth about their brother Parvaiz, who has actually gone to Syria to join ISIS. We are also not sure whether Aneeka is using Eemon and his contacts to trace out her brother, or if she is genuinely in love with him.
The rest of the book then explores the fraught relationships between the three siblings, and how Eemon and his father play (or don’t play) a role in their lives. Does Parvaiz return back to London or does he stay with ISIS? Who does Eemonn eventually go to, Isma or Aneeka? Do the sisters patch up their relationship? What does it mean to be a family? How far would a sister go to sacrfice everything for her brother? What is loyalty? All these and a whole lot more are explored in the book.
There is no doubt that Shamsie writes very well. Her ability to strike up narratives that are engrossing and engaging are proof enough of her capabilities as a writer. But what I feel let me down here is the subject matter. Like I said earlier, haven’t we all heard of a story of a man running off to join ISIS? Haven’t we heard one too many times of two women falling for the same guy? Granted, Home Fire is based on a Greek tragedy so Shamsie stuck to that plot line, so I can’t really fault her for writing something like this.
This book reminded me of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist with regards to Parvaiz’s storyline of joining the ISIS. Which is why Home Fire felt like a familiar ground to me.
Home Fire will definitely appeal to the Western readers (it was longlisted for Man Booker prize in 2017), all the while this book didn’t make much noise in the Pakistani market- or maybe I missed it if it did. The front of the book has a raving statement from Peter Carey who says, “Left me awestruck, shaken, on the edge of my chair, filled with admiration for her courage and ambition.” Yeah, so I was not left on the edge of my chair nor did it leave me awestruck.