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New-age Sophocles

Kamila Shamsie's new novel, Home Fire, is a bold retelling of Sophocles' Antigone

Dwight Garner | NYT 

Kamila Shamsie’s new novel, longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is a bold retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone. Its epigram (“The ones we love … are enemies of the state”) is from Seamus Heaney’s 2004 translation and reworking of the play. The novel begins with an airport interrogation.

A Londoner of Pakistani descent, Isma, has a student visa and is flying to study sociology at Amherst College. Because she’s and wears a hijab, she knows to expect delays and perhaps worse at security.

Dark wit plays beneath her trepidation. She has prepped for this moment with her sister. If you’re asked about the queen, her sister has said, respond, “As an Asian I have to admire her colour palette.” The interrogation is no joke. It lasts hours. Isma’s clothes are frisked so thoroughly that the security hirelings seem to be “not so much searching for hidden pockets as judging the quality of the material”.

Her browser history is audited. This novel dilates on what Shamsie calls GWM — “Googling While Muslim”. An officer wants to “know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, ‘The Great British Bake Off’, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.” Dame Edna and “Brexit” are about the only topics omitted from this pop quiz.

It’s a scene that sets the tone for this ingenious and love-struck novel. Isma is eventually allowed to take off. Home Fire takes flight as well.

This novel may seem to wobble in the minutes after its landing gear retracts. There are lurching shifts of tone as it moves between matters of the heart and of state.

Do not panic. Order something from the drinks cart. Shamsie drives this gleaming machine home in a manner that, if I weren’t handling airplane metaphors, I would call smashing.

New-age Sophocles
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 272
Price: Rs 599
Home Fire is set in contemporary London, in Amherst, Mass., and in the Middle East. It plays freely with Sophocles’ drama but hews to its themes: civil disobedience, fidelity and the law, especially as regards burial rights.

Isma has left behind in London younger siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, 19-year-old twins. Isma raised them after their mother’s death.

They barely knew their father, a jihadist who died after being tortured at Bagram Air Base in His fame has tainted their lives in the West. Parvaiz is adrift and haunted, however, by his father’s legacy.

He is recruited by He joins its media division in He quickly discovers he has made a mistake. Home Fire is largely about Aneeka’s attempts to help her twin come home.

Louise Glück, in her poem Tango, observed, “Of two sisters/one is always the watcher,/one the dancer.” While Isma looks on from America, Aneeka begins to whirl.

Aneeka falls into an affair with Eamonn, the son of Britain’s new home secretary, Karamat Lone, a man of background.

Eamonn is wealthy and beautiful, with “perfect half-moons in his fingernails.” Is this love? Or is Aneeka manoeuvring to win his father’s help in getting her brother home? Or both?

Lone, the home secretary, is among Shamsie’s most sophisticated creations. He’s had to thread many needles while rising in British politics. He’s mocked by some for becoming “Mr. British Values. Mr. Strong on Security. Mr. Striding Away from Muslim-ness.”

Shamsie humanises him. She writes about his “extravagant snort, which his children were always amazed he could restrain from in public life.”

There are occasional small blunders in Home Fire. A consideration of grief, for example, becomes a word goop. “Grief spread its wings large like an eagle, grief huddled small like a porcupine,” Shamsie writes, “grief needed company, grief craved solitude; grief wanted to remember, wanted to forget.” Grief wants to be left alone.

These moments are rare. Her humour mixes freely with her intellection. The humour fades into fatalistic meditations on life lived while straddling worlds. Aneeka comes up with a plan to get her brother home, a plan that will have consequences for everyone in this novel.

It’s a plan so intrepid that Aneeka is asked if she or her brother stopped “to think about those of us with passports that look like toilet paper to the rest of the world who spend our whole lives being so careful we don’t give anyone a reason to reject our visa applications? 

Home Fire builds to one of the most memorable final scenes I’ve read in a novel this century. It takes place live on international television.

I won’t give away what happens, but something about this scene reminded me of a scene from Satyajit Ray’s 1955 film Pather Panchali, as described by in his essay collection Imaginary Homelands (1991).

“When he shows his wife, Sarbajaya, the sari he has brought for the dead girl, she begins to weep,” Rushdie wrote, “and now he understands, and cries out, too; but (and this is the stroke of genius) their voices are replaced by the high, high music of a single tar shehnai, a sound like a scream of the soul.” There is high, high music in the air at the end of Home Fire.

© 2017 The New York Times

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