I picked up Home Fire in my local library, quite a while after it was first published (in 2017) and several months after it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018. But there was (and is) still plenty of hype surrounding this book, which meant that it was still on my radar, and when it was recommended to me by a friend on Twitter who I know has a similar taste to me I decided it was time to give it a read.
I’m one of those readers who prefers not to know too much about a book going in, so although I knew it was a contemporary retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, I deliberately didn’t refresh my memory of the story so that it would be as much of a surprise as possible. I’m very glad I read it that way, though I did enjoy reading about Antigone once I’d finished Home Fire. I like books that make me want to read more on the subject or do some related reading, and especially those that really make me think about various topical issues, and Home Fire definitely did both of those things.
In Shamsie’s story, a young woman named Isma is studying in America, having left her sister Aneeka behind in London. Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz has also left the family home, and eventually we learn he has gone to follow in the footsteps of the jihadist father he never knew. As the sisters deal with the reality and the repercussions of Parvaiz’s departure – and as Aneeka grows closer to Eamonn, the son of an influential politician – Isma has to learn to accept she won’t always be able to protect the ones she loves.
One of the things I love about this book is that Shamsie dives straight into the story, with no preamble to set the scene, allowing the reader to be engrossed from the first page. In the opening chapter we see Isma leaving for the US and being questioned by immigration for hours on end for no reason at all. Almost as difficult as seeing her be treated with such an unnecessary and unjust lack of respect is seeing her prepare to be interrogated before the flight – she expected the endless questions, and didn’t even know if she would be allowed in to the US to start her PhD. Sadly, for many, this will be a familiar experience.
Shamsie’s book raises a number of such issues, and is therefore an extremely thought-provoking read. From politics to family tensions to love to racism and to radicalisation, she doesn’t shy away from hard topics. At the same time, the book – narrated in the third person and written in the past tense – is driven by an engaging plot, which utterly captivated me when reading. It can be a tricky balancing act to successfully keep the pace moving whilst also tackling such difficult and urgent themes, but here Shamsie triumphs. The characters drew me in and I really cared about their fates, which in my view is a crucial part of engaging with any particular story.
Radicalisation, religious extremism and ISIS are still so prevalent in the news, and are so often linked to horrific misconceptions of Islam, leading in turn to prejudices, violence, hate crimes and racism, that it is vital we keep this conversation going. The question of whether to accept those back to the UK who have gone to fight or live alongside ISIS fighters is particularly pertinent as I write this because of the debate surrounding the young girls who have gone to marry fighters and are now trying to return home – with the UK government threatening to block their entry – and Shamsie’s book does an excellent job of bringing such questions to the forefront of our minds. Overall, this is a thoroughly important and riveting read, and one that I highly recommend.
First published by Bloomsbury in August 2017.