This striking book was written by Kamila Shamsie as a modern take on Sophocles’ classic Antigone. At the same time, it’s a strong commentary on racism and anti-Muslim sentiment, and what it’s like to be a Muslim immigrant in the UK or United States today.
The book begins with Isma, a London native from a Pakistani family, as she travels from the UK to the US to begin a PhD program. She worries about what kind of interrogation she’ll face at the airport and whether she’ll even be allowed into the country, and her fears are not unfounded. While in Massachusetts she befriends the son of a prominent UK politician who is also Muslim and of Pakistani descent, only this politician is reviled by the Muslim community for turning his back on his religion. In fact he seems to make every effort to distance himself from other Muslims in order to stay in political office. The politician’s son, Eammon, knows little about his father’s background, but as he gets to know Isma, he begins to see his father – and himself – in a new light.
I read Antigone in college but had to look up the story to understand the parallels. But I read Home Fire first, because I wanted to experience the story on its own without reading it as a reinterpretation. And I’m glad I did, because understanding Antigone first would have told me way too much about the story.
I often find modern versions of classics disappointing. Most of the time, the author has to develop plot lines that don’t make sense, and the parallels are forced rather than enlightening. For me, it’s rare that a re-imagining of a classic 1) stands on its own merit and 2) sheds new light on a classic story. That is definitely the case here (Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is another worthy exception, as is Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.)
Shamsie grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, and is now a UK and Pakistani citizen. Most of the book takes place in London, although parts take place in Syria, Pakistan, and the U.S. Clearly, Shamsie brings a lot of her own life to this book.
Home Fire is a book that made me think about anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bias, about terrorism, and about how people may be drawn into it. This is a problem the U.S. is facing as our overt racism and anti-immigrant bias grow stronger. In fact, this weekend there was an article in the New York Times about how our current anti-immigrant policies are in fact driving more people into the MS-13 gang. Whether you are born in this country or come to it from somewhere else, people deserve to be treated with trust and compassion. Instead our hate drives them into the very acts we are afraid of.
This was also a book that made me feel. Isma is such a strong, thoughtful character, and I found myself devastated by the actions taken by the other characters in the story. I won’t say more than that, but I highly recommend this book.