Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone was one of my top reads of 2015. In fact, I loved it so much I had mentally picked ‘Home Fire’ as the winner for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction before reading any of the shortlist. I’m willing to believe the judges were not working to quite my methodology, but there was no harm done in the end. Following our different reading schedules we all came to the same decision; ‘Home Fire’ is every bit as impressive as Shamsie’s previous novels and a thoroughly worthy winner of any and all accolades going.
Like so many novels published over the last few years, ‘Home Fire’ is a reworking of a famous classic text. The original in this case however is far older and, for me at least, more obscure than the Shakespeare and Austen updates with which we are all so familiar. Shamsie has taken the story of Antigone, a Greek tragedy with a Wikipedia summary so dense it took me multiple readings to make any sense of the characters’ names, actions and relationships to each other, and moved it to twenty-first Britain with breathtaking assurance.
For a start, the context of the original is some kind of ancient civil war (to quote Wikipedia, ‘Oedipus’s sons, Etocles and Polynices, had shared the rule jointly until they quarrelled, and Eteocles expelled his brother. In Sophocles’ account, the two brothers agreed to alternate rule each year, but Eteocles decided not to share power with his brother after his tenure expired. Polynices left the kingdom, gathered an army and attacked the city of Thebes in a conflict called the Seven Against Thebes. Both brothers were killed in the battle. King Creon, who has ascended to the throne of Thebes after the death of the brothers, decrees that Polynices is not to be buried or even mourned …) I suppose for those steeped in the Classics, the characters and settings of Antigone fit comfortably within a known narrative. By placing ‘Home Fire’ in the here and now, Shamsie gives her readers exactly that sense of understanding society, characters and nuance. The novel begins with the headscarf-wearing Isma missing her flight to the US from Britain, ‘The ticket wouldn’t be refunded because the airline took no responsibility for passengers who arrived at the airport three hours ahead of the departure time and were escorted to an interrogation room.‘ The familiar context of the War on Terror, Islamophobia and debates about citizenship and British national identity means ‘Home Fire’ pulls off the most difficult challenge of re-writing traditional stories. Rather than finding inventive ways of twisting them to fit a different setting, it utterly recasts its foundational material, helping us to understand the present day and the power of old stories by removing the comforting distance of time and space and making them immediate and unequivocally relevant.
There is absolutely no distance between recognisable, everyday life and the experiences of the characters in ‘Home Fire’. From Isma, the older sister, quietly confident with an identity which encompasses her strongly-held religious beliefs and academic ambitions to Karamat, the secular Muslim British MP with a very public stance against Terror, all the characters are fully formed; believable and tragic, they appear to be controlled by conventions, traditions and the media quite as much as their Greek counterparts were by fate.
‘Home Fire’ builds beautifully from its classical foundations, but it is a resolutely modern novel. If on first reading I was focusing on how it took on and worked with the traditional story of Antigone, I think on re-reading I’ll want to look harder at the ways it explores gender. (In a dry aside, we’re told how the young male characters struggle to learn how to be men because ‘For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition.‘) That will be the future though, for now I will simply bask in satisfaction of reading such a successful novel. If I was blown away by the way in which Shamsie helped me understand the past in ‘A God in Every Stone’ I am no less impressed with the insight she has given me into the present in her latest literary triumph. ‘Home Fire’ is a novel for those who like the Classics and those drawn to the contemporary, those who wish to understand ancient stories and those who want to explore twenty-first century society. It is a novel for anyone who wants to see what the very best of modern fiction has to offer; from Shamsie, I would expect nothing less.
I received my copy of ‘Home Fire’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.