This year’s Man Booker longlist has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise for me. I think this is partly because I am more involved in the bookish world than ever before, meaning I am aware of many more books outside my usual reading range. As well as this, I think that many of the books on the list are very accessible in terms of language and content. For the first time, I have a little pile of Man Booker nominated books on my bedside table. I was very lucky to have my wish for Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie, granted by the publisher Bloomsbury on NetGalley. Grab a cup of tea for this review, it is a longer one but I need that length to do Home Fire justice.
The story is of three British Muslim siblings living in the UK, 19-year-old twins, Parvais and Aneeka, and an older sister, Isma, who is also a mother figure as both parents are dead. Their father was a Jihadi fighter, who died on the way to Guantanamo. His legacy is that that his children are intensely aware of their relationship with Islam and of what life is like being a Muslim in a country increasingly suspicious and fearful of anything ‘other’. Isma’s response is to hold on to her faith and to explore human behaviour as the centre of her post graduate studies. Aneeka searches for her answers and acceptance in studying law and being part of a western culture. Parvais is the lost boy, drifting without purpose and desperate for belonging. He is groomed into becoming a fighter like his father before him and the rest of the book then focuses on his journey and the consequences of his actions for his family as well as the political response by the UK government. Intertwined with this is the story of the Home Secretary, who has turned away from his Muslim roots and is determined to be seen as a secular, accepted Muslim – assimilation means everything to him.
Shamsie doesn’t hold back in her commentary on being a Muslim in the UK (She grew up in Karachi and has divided her time between there, America and the UK, gaining British citizenship in 2014) and I love her for it. In one of the interviews (I have listed the interviews I read at the bottom of this article) she was asked if she would have written such a book before her citizenship. The answer is no. And it isn’t any wonder. There is a comment early on about one of the characters GWM (googling whilst Muslim), how there is always that fear of being monitored, not being able to research or be able to show any interest online. Shamsie said that as she was researching online, even she, who is a known writer and Guardian journalist, felt very aware of the sites she was visiting. There is also a brilliant comment about the use of the term British, how even in language, Muslims are distanced from ‘true Britishness’:
‘Even when the word ‘’British’ was used it was always “British of Pakistani descent’ or “British Muslim” or, my favourite, “British passport-holders”, always something interposed…’
A very perceptive and personal observation I feel. As a non-UK passport holder, but having lived in the UK for most of my life, this really struck a chord with me, this ever so slight but very clear separation. Just in case.
The political situation in the UK is indeed tackled head on, the Home Secretary aims to strip any person of British citizenship, who goes against what it is to be ‘British.’ He gives a speech to Muslim teenagers on the importance of fitting in, of not setting yourself apart. Parvais’ groomer asks him how he can live in a country where democracy and freedom are only a mirage. In an interview, Shamsie talks about how important she feels it is for writers to address right wing conservatism and religious fundamentalism prevalent in politics in so many countries. Home Fire isn’t only a political novel, it is very much about what it is to be human and about human relationships. But the political angle certainly packs a punch.
Shamsie is just as clear in her addressing the Islamic State, the appeal of it as well as the terror. In Parvais, she shows how vulnerability is manipulated. Parvais is desperate to find belonging, to be seen and heard and loved. And there are so many young people who feel this way- I know I certainly did. Parvais can’t own his love for his father in the UK nor does he fit in. He is already disillusioned with society at the age of 19. So, the words of his groomer speak straight to his heart;
‘Not so long ago. When it was understood that a welfare state was something you built up instead of tearing down, when it saw migrants as people to be welcomed, not turned away. Imagine what it would be like to live in such a nation.’
At no point is Parvais painted as purely a victim, he remains responsible for his actions and this I thought was very well done. I read that Shamsie’s intention was to show this core sense of belonging alongside the violence, as Islamic fundamentalism is not only the physical terror we tend to focus on. The brutality is stark and its matter of fact portrayal is powerful. There is a scene describing the planning of an execution where the camera angles are worked out for maximum impact. She highlights the age-old justification of terror only being used as an interim measure, to teach and warn, to rid society of those who cannot agree. It really made me think of Communist regimes of the past, of dictatorships around the world and rather frighteningly, of the right-wing movements so prevalent in our world today.
The severe view of women is explored within this fundamentalism, in a community where women are owned and cannot show any part of themselves in public. What it is to be a Muslim and a woman is indeed a theme throughout, and the portrayal is sensitive, perceptive and brave. And I am very aware that I write that from a non-Muslim, female perspective. Not only do we have the women of ISIS but also the paths that Isma and Aneeka take. Three very different perspectives.
As I’ve already mentioned, Home Fire also goes beyond the political. Shamsie explores whether redemption is possible, whether love can be enough to change a person, how involved you have to be to be morally guilty. Furthermore, it is about the impact that parents have on their children and the lengths a human being will go to help those they love. She also asks if it is possible and indeed right, to turn away from your family inheritance, from faith but also from culture. At no point did I feel like I was being led to a particular viewpoint; my head was full of questions instead and that is what I think makes a great writer.
There is a haunting description of grief in this book, which will certainly stay with me in its despair and its beauty. Human loss is human loss, no matter who you are, where you live or what you believe in.
‘Grief was the deal God struck with the Angel of Death, who wanted an unpassable river to separate the living from the dead; grief the bridge that would allow the dead to flit among the living, their footsteps overheard, their laughter around the corner, their posture in the bodies of strangers you would follow down the street willing them never to turn around.’
My last observation is how brilliantly Shamsie portrays the media. How words can have such influence, how sensationalism escalates incredibly quickly, how judgemental media can be and just how naïve society can be. The story of the individuals involved, is lost in a sea of generalisation, stereotyping, judgement and righteousness. I am very aware that there is genuine, investigative journalism out there, I read it and actively search for it (and I am so thankful for it) but I do feel this picture is sadly accurate in many ways – and it happens because society lets it.
I strongly urge you to read this book. Shamsie is a vibrant, intelligent, perceptive writer with a genuine interest in human behaviour.
Articles I read: