Britz, Peter Kosminsky’s Bafta-winning 2007 drama, is a story about British Muslim siblings – one who gets a job at MI5; the other, alienated by foreign and domestic policy and the relentless targeting of her peers, who is drawn to terrorism. How do “home-grown” terrorists “grow”? What price the laws of the state when family is involved? Is “diversity” in UK institutions nothing but a mutual selling out?
Its two-part structure allowed Britz first to give us Riz Ahmed’s Sohail working for the British state, then Manjinder Virk’s Nasima for Islamism. The action moved from UK campuses, to the corridors of power, and to Pakistan. It ended in the public spaces of capitalist London, with one sibling in a white salwar kameez, pregnant with an explosive vest, and the other holding her tightly with love. The drama was trailed with the question: “Whose side are you on?”
Kamila Shamsie’s seventh novel, Home Fire, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, poses these questions using similar plot lines and locations. The perspective is widened to five points of view. Isma is the moderate elder sister to twins – the beautiful, passionate and streetwise Aneeka and her brother, Parvaiz, a lost soul with abandonment issues. He is easy prey when radicalisation offers to fill the void. Then there is Eamonn, the Pakistani-Irish (and wholly upper-class British) son of Karamat Lone, a career politician, appointed as the UK home secretary with a brief to defuse tensions between communities, inspire a sense of “British values” in young Muslims and be the brown face of the establishment.
The motives of the five characters are complex yet simple: they are bound by honour, loyalty and duty. Fiery love – particularly Aneeka’s for Parvaiz and Eamonn, her two “homes” – gives a heart-stopping momentum to this book.
The novel takes its cue from Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone, in which a young woman is caught between laws on burial rites laid down by her uncle and those of her faith. She risks death if she follows her religion. The horrific alternative is that she leaves her brother’s body outside the city walls, to be eaten by dogs.
Shamsie has written about the post-9/11 resonances of the Greek text – notably in a critique of Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s Afghanistan-set The Watch (2012). In her own novel, Antigone serves as a reminder that Western civilisation is constructed – as perhaps all civilisations are – upon ancient myths both brutal and bloody, and that women bear the brunt when the law seeks to override the bonds of faith, family and shared humanity.
Shamsie expertly distils a vast socio-political landscape into human bodies – the receptacles for our mixed identities. In dissecting these, she offers tidbits of street reality to the literary establishment. Riz Ahmed, in his essay for the collection The Good Immigrant, writes about the harassment that Muslims face at airports. Shamsie opens with this happening to Isma at the American border.
Overly expository dialogue references the dangers of “GWM” (“googling while Muslim”), and the joke – often heard among young multiracial groups – about whether a certain kind of beard identifies a man as a “hipster or Muslim” (that is, a terrorist) is threaded through a chapter. Then there is the trope of the eroticisation of the hijab by the Western gaze: Aneeka, naked except for her white veil, its “colours contrasting” with her brown skin, touches her nipple through the fabric and asks Eamonn, who is struggling with his mixed-race identity, “Leave this on?” The scene is all the more provocative given that Eamonn’s ex-girlfriend was a rich white girl, described by his father as the living embodiment of a cold, dead fish.
The ancient war between Christianity and Islam is evoked by blood, shed across the world. Aneeka’s lost father, Adil Pasha (say it quickly and it sounds like “Oedipus”), and his peers undertake jihad from Bosnia to Bagram, risking death or torture in “a prison outside the law”. Adil’s life and the manner of his death affect all of the characters. The book argues that we are all responsible – regardless of geography, race and class (explored in unlikely extracts from imagined tabloid newspapers that reduce “Aneeka” to “knickers”) – for the morality and security decisions of the state.
As well as the echoes of names from Antigone, a deeper sonic landscape resonates: Eamonn has excellent hearing, catching rain “pinging off bricks”; Parvaiz records samples of his sister’s voice, even as he becomes a sound recordist in Isis’s media wing.
The rest of the background, geographic and emotional, is hazy. This taps into Antigone’s mythical world, but prevents Home Fire attaining the depth that it needs to spark the empathy to fully convince. While appreciating the poetic flashes – a memory of the siblings cooking together evokes violence through the knife; the image of trains passing evokes empire – readers might also wish that the writing didn’t so often explain its nuances, forming a distancing screen.
The touching of hands to windows in an attempt to reach those in the outside world, “as if fate wanted them together but the wheels of plot wouldn’t allow it”, is a repeated metaphor in the novel. Connection is striven for as if through glass or ice, and finally through the potential of love to melt it. The book is at its best in the articulation of this hope.
The urgent relevance of Home Fire lies partly in its critique of media bias – newspapers, TV, film and social media feature throughout. The novel’s last scene also powerfully rethinks the explosive ending of Britz, instead offering a silent moment on which Shamsie presses pause, not wanting her world to descend even further into darkness.
Preti Taneja’s novel “We That Are Young” is published by Galley Beggar Press
Bloomsbury Circus, 272pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 06 Sep 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move