‘Home Fire’: Exile in death
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Kamila Shamsie may be one of Britain’s most interesting novelists, but the very thing that makes her writing so attractive—the elegant, almost argumentative ways in which her plots knot and resolve themselves—can sometimes make readers feel like we are visiting, rather than dwelling, in the house of her stories.
Her tight third-person and expansive first-person narratives never quite let us forget that a clever author is behind the curtain. She doesn’t “do voices”, choosing instead to reveal her characters the way a lawyer pleading for them might do in a carefully constructed brief. In spite of a thrilling variety in location, period and subject, even her accounts of, say, the massacre of Qissa Khwani Bazaar (Peshawar) or the bombing of Hiroshima have tended to reveal themselves through a polished surface, full of wonderful things but oddly empty of wonder itself.
It is delightful to discover, then, that this particular intellectual bent gives Shamsie a distinct advantage in Home Fire, her new experiment. Retelling Antigone must be one of the more difficult exercises an English novelist can attempt. It’s easy to explain that Sophocles’ drama is about a girl begging a king for the right to bury her rebel brother in his native soil, against which he has committed treason, and that it was composed in a culture whose rituals of death were as important as its ceremonies of living.
Even so, there’s something unhinged about the whole affair: an outraged woman taunting a state with the exhibition of her hothead brother’s corpse, practically asking to be buried alive herself. Antigone is so tiring. The law’s the law, the righteous viewer will wish to remind her at some point. Let him go, the soft-hearted and the pragmatic alike argue; the rights of dead men must not be allowed to matter more than your future as a living woman.
But she will not budge. She sacrifices her life along with his, because—and this is the part difficult to explain—Sophocles wants us to consider a morality above that of temporal law. Of what use is a well-run society if its members are all going to be monsters rather than humans?
This very battle is joined over the corpse in Shamsie’s novel, that of a British-Pakistani teenager named Parvaiz. The UK rescinds his right to be buried on home soil, since Parvaiz fled to West Asia in the company of a charming Islamic State (IS) recruiter, enticed by stories of his deadbeat dad, himself an old-school British Muslim mujahid murdered by torture in Bagram, Afghanistan (even at its most persuasive, this section is truly difficult to stomach—but who better than the children of Oedipus to know that defeat is an orphan?).
Parvaiz’s nemesis is Karamat Lone, the British home secretary on the up-and-up. So dedicated is he to upholding the security state that having stripped Parvaiz of citizenship in absentia, he now refuses to admit the body back home. The private complication, as in Sophocles, is that Creon/Karamat’s son wishes to marry Parvaiz’s sister, Aneeka, a high-octane firebrand who is also a vulnerable teenaged orphan, fated to stand vigil over her brother’s corpse in the full glare of the world’s cameras in a Karachi park.
It’s easy to see why the Antigone plot has acquired a keen edge in the literature of the War on Terror. Seamus Heaney was thinking of the invasion of Iraq when he wrote The Burial At Thebes; Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s over-literal The Watch reset the story in Afghanistan, pitting American soldiers against locals; the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn wrote an unforgettable riff on the play in a New Yorker essay about the burial of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
The human rights angle stares us in the face. As weird and unlikeable as Antigone is, after all, Sophocles is successful in showing us that even the gods value a person’s dignity. A just state, many of us can agree, may wreak vengeance on the living, but not the dead. But Home Fire would be boring if it delivered only this conclusion. Instead, Shamsie reconstructs the arguments ground-up, introducing us to the life of each mind in a closely narrated drama that unfolds at a perfect, dreadful pace.
Home Fire’s missteps, too, are few and frivolous. Shamsie tries to reproduce the voice of the British tabloid and UK Twitter to create a largely unnecessary chorus in the book’s last quarter, and the last 500 words of the novel read like a heated but misplaced tribute to a popular south Indian film-maker whose name, I am afraid, will give the game away to too many readers.
But its pleasures are true. Shamsie is completely undeterred by the challenge of persuading us to believe in the interior monologues of IS recruit and compromised politician alike. Her instinct for dialectical storytelling has been honed by her stories set in the interstices of empire and the forever war between Asia and Europe. It is now more than up to the task of showing us what modern Britain in the War on Terror—a state both spiteful and conscience-stricken—has in common with the Thebes of Creon.
She is at her best in the heads of the older warier characters. Aneeka, Parvaiz and Aneeka’s fiancé Eamonn each get (and are) moving parts in this contraption, yet its fires are stoked highest by the two characters who represent order and protection, the brilliant, ambitious Karamat and Aneeka’s cautious, conflicted big sister Isma, who gets an expanded role and serves as a sorrowing but beautiful chorus herself.
Home Fire is one of the best Antigones of this period, and one of Shamsie’s best novels. Where it differs from her earlier work, and perhaps the reason it pierces through the glossy devices of those other books, some of which are set during other wars, is that for all its immediacy, its true setting is intangible and mazy. Its final hearing isn’t really at a park in Karachi or the gates of Thebes. The court of conscience has no fixed address on this earth. The corpse embodies exile, and every grieving being beside it embodies an unrecoverable home. Our places of mourning these days are airports, borders and interrogation rooms. It is in this bleak, inhospitable, in-between terrain that Shamsie builds, finally, a place we can dwell in.