Burning for Love – Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire

Cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia

The publisher’s blurb states plainly that Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is ‘a contemporary reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone’. That should have been a clue, but I didn’t read the blurb until after I’d finished the novel. Once the connection with Antigone penetrated my brain, Home Fire exploded in a whole new way and I went straight back to the beginning to read it again.

Is it too late now for a spoiler alert? Hmmm, probably. It’s impossible to talk in any detail about a book that reimagines Antigone without giving the game away. It’s a tragedy. People die. If you don’t want to know more, stop reading right now. (If you know Antigone, you already know too much anyway.)

Antigone and Greek Tragedy

Sophocles. Cast of a bust in the Pushkin Museum. (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

I first read Sophocles’ Antigone a few years back while tutoring an English literature student. Together we grappled with the history of Greece in the fifth century B.C., its embryonic democratic structures, its demands on citizens’ loyalty to the state, and its great festival of Dionysus (god of wine, ritual madness and religious ecstasy). Plays, many of them tragedies like Antigone, were performed during the festival, and playwrights competed for the acclaim of audiences and judges.

Very basically, Sophocles’ play tells the story of a young woman’s single-minded determination to bury her brother. Two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, have fought each other for the right to rule Thebes after Eteocles refuses a pre-existing power-sharing arrangement. Both die in battle. Their sisters, Antigone and Ismene, live on under the reign of their uncle Creon, ‘the new man for the new day’. Creon declares Eteocles a patriot and Polyneices (who had enlisted the help of foreign troops to fight his homeland) a traitor. In the usual way of things, those in power make the rules. Creon forbids anyone to bury Polyneices or even mourn him:

‘He’s to be left unwept, unburied … Whoever disobeys in the least will die, his doom is sealed.’

Antigone rails against the injustice of Creon’s edict and plans to bury Polyneices regardless: ‘even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory’. Ismene counsels compliance. To her way of thinking Antigone is ‘wild’ and ‘irrational’ and ‘in love with impossibility’.

The play’s conflict is set: Creon’s espousal that whoever places friend or family above the good of country ‘is nothing’ because ‘our country is our safety’ versus Antigone’s ‘give me glory’ rallying cry.

That’s the nub of many a tragedy. The law of the land versus the conscience of the individual. The state is unbending; the hero defiant. As the French playwright – and another of Antigone’s adaptors – Jean Anouilh, said:

‘In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known.’

Shamsie’s Reimagining

Kamila Shamsie. (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

While Anouilh moved the action of Sophocles’ play from ancient Thebes to World War II France, Shamsie shifts the story to today’s world. This new version of the centuries-old tale is told, sequentially, through the perspectives and experiences of five players:

  • Isma Pasha (Ismene), a pragmatist whose ‘supressed anger’ is ‘distilled and abstracted into essays about the sociological impact of the War on Terror’
  • Isma’s younger twin siblings Aneeka (Antigone), law student and embodiment of Sophocles’ daring justice-seeker, and Parvaiz (Polyneices), who hates the inevitability of his circumscribed life and determines to fight against it
  • Karamat Lone (Creon), the newly appointed Home Secretary in the British government, a believer in ‘public service, national good and British values’ who argues that ‘citizenship is a privilege not a right or a birthright’
  • Karamat’s son Eamonn (Haemon), ‘a man carrying all the wounds that his father was almost certainly too thick-skinned to feel as anything other than pinpricks’.

These five players are set against the backdrop of a British government running an assimilation and conformity policy on migrants in general and Muslims in particular; a government showing no mercy to those it deems to have ‘acted against the vital interest of the UK’; a government that says: ‘we will not let those who turn against the soil of Britain in their lifetime sully that very soil in death.’ Aneeka versus Karamat, Antigone versus Creon. It’s the conflict between family and country, between justice and law, all over again.

Sophocles’ Lesser Players Brought to Life in Home Fire

In Sophocles’ Antigone, Polyneices is already dead when the play begins and Haemon’s role, as Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé, is minor. But Shamsie gives these men equal billing as main characters. While I was fascinated with the overall congruence between Shamsie’s reimagining and Sophocles’ original, I was especially struck by the vitality Shamsie breathes into these two less-explored young men.

Karamat Lone describes Aneeka (for reasons that become clear when you read the novel) as ‘the nexus of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State’, but I think of her as the nexus between Parvaiz and Eamonn. Soon after Aneeka meets Eamonn, she places her hand on his wrist and smiles. She then takes his other hand and places it on her heart. ‘We match’, she says. It’s a moment that echoes Aneeka’s relationship with her brother: ‘As children the twins would lie in the garden, fingers on each other’s pulses … waiting for those moments when their hearts were synchronised’.

Initially, it may seem that the strongest connection between the two men is Aneeka’s beating heart. True, both are the only sons of migrant families who left northern Pakistan to settle in London, but the families’ paths soon diverge – Parvaiz’s father leaves his family to fight with Al Qaeda and dies en route to Guantánamo, Eamonn’s father navigates party politics and religious prejudice to fight through the ranks of the Westminster system. Their fathers’ choices place Parvaiz and Eamonn on seemingly different trajectories. Parvaiz lives on Preston Road, a few kicks from Wembley Stadium; Eamonn makes his home in an expensive apartment in Notting Hill, a stone’s throw from his family home in Holland Park (both residences a short distance from Kensington Palace). Parvaiz works at his local greengrocer’s stacking shelves; Eamonn, according to his father, works at ‘beating his own high score in computer games’.

Apart from Aneeka, what could these two men possibly have in common? From my reading, quite a lot.

Secrecy and Isolation

Both Parvaiz and Eamonn have a secret. In each case, the signals of secrecy are mis-read by friends and family.

Early in their rapidly evolving relationship, Aneeka insists that Eamonn tell no one.

‘Let me be your secret … I won’t tell anyone about you; you don’t tell anyone about me. We’ll be each other’s secret.’

Parvaiz’s secret is of a different order. As he increasingly discovers his dead father’s Al Qaeda activities and resultant torture, and is groomed for his own place within ISIS, Parvaiz burns with ‘the incandescence of a beautiful secret in his heart’, ‘a hidden corner of his life’ that his sisters know nothing of.

The secrets lead to social isolation. People notice behavioural changes. A clever reality reversal from Shamsie sees Eamonn’s friends develop suspicions about his political allegiances, while Aneeka questions the state of Parvaiz’s love life. Here is the glib humour from one of Eamonn’s friends:

‘Twenty-something unemployed male from Muslim background exhibits rapidly altered pattern of behaviour, cuts himself off from old friends, moves under the radar … I think we may need to alert the authorities.’

And this teasing from Aneeka to Parvaiz:

‘Are you finally ready to tell me about her?’
‘Her who?’ answers Parvaiz.
‘Really? You going to tell me you aren’t lying here looking so wounded because of whoever you’ve been going off to meet every afternoon and texting deep into the night … Who is she? Why all the secrecy?’

Parvaiz and Eamonn become obsessive and inward-looking. As the Messenger and Leader in Sophocles’ Antigone observe, ‘too much silence has its dangers’.

Idealised Fathers, Blinkered Sons

‘Boys are different to us’, Isma says. ‘They see what they want through tunnel vision.’

With limited perception, Parvaiz and Eamonn lionise their fathers. ‘We want to be like them, we want to be better than them’, says Eamonn. Parvaiz subscribes to the view that his father, Adil Pasha, saw the world ‘for what it is. And having seen it, he understood that a man has larger responsibilities than the ones his wife and mother chain him to’. The words apply equally to Eamonn’s father, Karamat Lone.

It takes a shock for both sons to shed their blinkers and see their fathers’ choices in a truer light. Jolted by military training outside Raqqa, Parvaiz realises that he is ‘his father’s son in his abandonment of a family who had always deserved better than him’. For Eamonn, it’s his father’s reaction to the revelation of Eamonn’s connection with Aneeka and her family that provides the reality-check. Karamat scolds his son with the words: ‘You stupid stupid boy. My stupid boy.’ And suddenly, ‘where there’d been a father, now there was a Home Secretary’.

Neither Parvaiz nor Eamonn has the father he thought he had.

Despite the shedding of blinkers and the clarity of fresh insights, there is no escaping blood heritage. After all, Shamsie’s Home Fire is a tragedy. It’s the realist Isma who gets to the heart of things:

‘It didn’t matter if they were on this side or that of the political spectrum, or whether the fathers were absent or present, or if someone else had loved them better, loved them more: in the end they were always their father’s sons.’

Links and Sources

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2017

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Random House

Quotes from Antigone are taken from Robert Fagles’ translation, The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. London: Penguin Classics, 1984. Jean Anouilh’s quote is from the introduction to his adaptations, Antigone, and Eurydice: Two Plays. London: Methuen, 1951

For more on Antigone and Greek tragedy, see playwright and theatre researcher Christine Lambrianidis’ 2015 essay in The Conversation, ‘Antigone Now: Greek Tragedy Is the Debate We Have to Have’.

The ABC’s now defunct Book Club discussed Home Fire in the program’s final episode. You can listen to the panel’s reactions and reflections here.

If you’re looking for reviews of Home Fire, you might like to seek out Natalie Haynes’ ‘A Contemporary Reworking of Sophocles’ in The Guardian, 10 August 2017, and James McNamara’s ‘A Clash of Loyalties’ in The Spectator (UK), 7 September 2017

To understand a little of Kamila Shamsie’s own relationship with the uncertainties of dual citizenship and of making a home in a new country, see her article ‘On Applying for British citizenship: “I never felt safe”’.

While Shamsie doesn’t have a website, she does have an active presence on Twitter and also a Facebook page. Further biographical background is available via the British Council website.

Image credits:

Blending Biography with Family History: Brenda Niall’s Can You Hear the Sea?

Cover image courtesy of Text Publishing

Brenda Niall’s biographies, in addition to being regular award-winners, generally share two features—their subjects are Roman Catholic and they emigrate from the northern hemisphere to Australia. Niall’s latest book, Can You Hear the Sea?: My Grandmother’s Story continues this tradition.

Niall was a young woman in her twenties when her grandmother, Agnes (‘Aggie’), died. The author was old enough to have formed her own memories of a woman over sixty years her senior, but not old enough to have asked the kind of questions on which a biographer depends.

Who was Aggie Gorman (nee Maguire) and how does Niall evoke her grandmother’s life?


Aggie Maguire. Photo reproduced from Can You Hear the Sea?

Agnes Maguire (1869-1953), known as Aggie, was born to Irish Catholic parents in Liverpool, her family having been ‘forced into exile … in the years of the Great Hunger’ (15). With two of her siblings, Aggie leaves England in 1888—‘in a spirit of hope and adventure’ (2)—to embark on life in Australia. Her 19-year-old spirit could have been broken from the start—her brother dies during the passage to Sydney leaving Aggie and her sister, Minnie, without their intended position (and protection) as their brother’s housekeepers.

Seemingly undaunted, the two sisters make their way in an alien land. They settle initially in Melbourne, where their mother’s brother lives with his family, and establish a small teaching academy. They venture next to Kyneton, and then move further north for Aggie to take charge of a one-teacher Catholic primary school. It is while teaching in the small town of Burramine that Aggie meets property owner Richard Gorman, described by Niall as ‘a single man of good fortune’, undoubtedly ‘in want of a wife’ (47).

Marriage follows. Then children. Then death. In 1908, at the age of 39, Aggie is a widow with seven children. She navigates the children’s education through a combination of home teaching followed by boarding school in Melbourne. After remaining on her deceased husband’s property (managed by one of his brother’s) for a decade or so, Aggie decides to leave the land and return to Melbourne. Settling in the eastern suburbs, she nurtures the family’s next generation as her grandchildren come from country districts in Victoria and New South Wales to the southern capital’s schools.

More Than an Insular Family Tale

The outline above suggests a family story, modest in scope. Niall draws Aggie’s Irish relatives into her account, and various tussles with Aggie’s in-laws also add to the picture. But Niall’s long career as a biographer means that this story is larger than one family’s recollection of their matriarch, and it provides a useful template for family history writing.

History ‘Lite’

Niall weaves the historical record into her narrative. Her research is extensive (from contemporaneous newspapers and archival records, through biographies and general histories, and via the written and oral recollections of family members), but its detail does not weigh heavily on the story. The reader learns enough to glean an understanding of the times in which Aggie lived, but not so much that story veers too far from its main character.

By way of explaining a grim family photograph, for instance, Niall first describes Aggie’s mother as ‘severe and unsmiling’. She then continues: ‘Not that any of them smile: Victorian family groups are seldom animated. The photographic process was slow, and stillness was required’ (91). In another brief explanation of Aggie’s era, Niall notes Aggie’s indignation when she learns that her Liverpool-based sisters will inherit nothing from their father’s will: ‘The boys were expected to provide for their unmarried sisters. That was how it was in 1898’ (94).

Literary Links

Books are important to Niall, and they were important for her grandmother. Niall laces her biographical account with literary allusions. They serve two purposes: they reflect the character and interests of both author and subject, and they offer imaginative scope for readers familiar with the referenced texts.

Cover image (2000 edition) courtesy of Penguin UK

Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield makes an appearance when Niall writes about child labour in the blacking factories (19); Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, as already mentioned, provides the model for Richard Gorman in his search for a wife (47); and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited offers a literary parallel for the lifestyle of one of Aggie’s England-based sisters-in-law, Isobel. Niall writes that Isobel employs a private chaplain: ‘It was the sort of thing that aristocratic Catholic families did—the Brideshead model’ (222).

A Sense of Character

Consider these insights into Aggie’s character:

  • when her brother Joe dies at sea on the voyage to Australia, Niall senses: ‘Perhaps that’s when Aggie taught herself to meet grief with silence’ (32)
  • when Aggie’s husband Richard becomes ill, Niall says that her grandmother ‘would have liked to keep Richard’s privacy and her own. She dreaded what she saw as an invasion of sympathisers’ (114)
  • when Richard dies, Aggie feels ‘an overwhelming emptiness’ and does not let herself ‘weep in front of the children’ (123).

This emotional reserve and isolation is a constant in Aggie’s life. It is so potent that it is transmitted to the next generation. Not long before Aggie’s own death, her daughter Connie’s husband (also Niall’s father) dies. Niall writes: ‘Connie’s grief was intense and silent … [Her] refusal to talk about her loss, and her attempt to protect her younger children, were almost certainly mistaken and damaging … In many ways, [Connie] became more like her mother’ (267).

A Sense of Place

In a biography, evocations of place are as critical as windows into history and character. People live in time and space. Word pictures bring worlds alive.

Exhibition Building. The Leader (Supplement), 29 December 1888: 1

Aggie and her sister Minnie arrive in Melbourne at the time of the 1888 Centennial Exhibition when a ‘dazzling display of creative talent’ (38) is on show. Niall deftly engenders a sense of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ through her description of the sisters’ visit to the Exhibition Building: ‘The girls paid their threepences to climb eighty steep stairs to the gilded dome. It was the highest point in Melbourne. From here, looking south, they could see Parliament House and the Treasury Building, solid and impressive in Italianate style, the Princess Theatre and the Windsor Hotel. To the west, the dome of the Supreme Court building dominated the skyline. Melbourne was a great city’ (38).

The Author in the Story

Brenda Niall. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

Niall doesn’t shy away from allowing herself to be a character within Aggie’s story. From time to time, she blends her own memories and research processes into the biography.

The book opens like this: ‘On Christmas Eve, 1940, soon after my tenth birthday, my grandmother gave me a small wooden box with a lock and key. There was nothing inside it, and as far as I can remember she didn’t explain it’ (1). Later, Niall recalls going to the cinema with her grandmother and seeing wartime news: ‘I look up Liverpool during World War II and find the newsreels we watched’ (10).

When researching the disease that killed her grandfather (Aggie’s husband, Richard), Niall offers a first-person reflection: ‘I looked on the internet for an account of actinomycosis and shuddered’ (119).

The distance between subject and reader is narrowed via the author’s presence.

Being Up-Front about the Unknown

Niall’s subject is a woman born in the 1860s. Inevitably, much is unknown and unknowable. Niall does not paper over the gaps. When her mother (Aggie’s daughter, Connie) marries and leaves Aggie’s home, Niall muses on her grandmother’s state of mind: ‘I can’t guess what she was thinking. Calm after the chaos perhaps. Or a void that she didn’t know how to fill?’ (209). Niall doesn’t know the answer, but by musing on possibilities, she opens avenues for the reader to explore. She wonders (following the account of Aggie’s brother’s shipboard death) ‘why wouldn’t the sisters go home’ (37)? There is no definitive answer, but spotlighting gaps is part of the story.

What’s Missing?

I am disappointed that Can You Hear the Sea? has no index. While a name index might seem a tedious addition, it provides a handy tool for finding references not only to individual family members, but also to well-known Australians and international identities with whom Aggie’s family cross paths. Niall’s biography touches on significant events in Australia’s history with which the Gorman family was connected (for example, the 1893 Federation conference in Corowa, and the conscription debates of 1916 and 1917); it would be easier to locate references to these events with the help of a place and subject index. So, too, the mentions of Melbourne schools and suburbs that form an important aspect of the family’s life.

A Parting Thought

Early in her account of her grandmother’s life, Niall admits her dependence on the public record and other people’s memories. Of herself, she says: ‘I didn’t ask enough questions’ (4). It’s a salutary warning.

Links and Sources

  • Can You Hear the Sea?: My Grandmother’s Story is published by Text Publishing.
  • My reading copy of the biography was from the National Library of Australia’s collection. Copies of all books by Australian publishers are sent to the National Library under ‘legal deposit’. This scheme ‘ensures that a comprehensive collection of published material relating to Australia and its people is preserved for the community and future generations’. The library has my ongoing gratitude.
  • Brenda Niall’s autobiography, Life Class: The Education of a Biographer, was published in 2007 by Melbourne University Press. Her 2005 Seymour Biography Lecture, Walking upon Ashes: The Footsteps of a Modern Biographer was published by the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University in 2006. To find more books written by Niall, visit Trove Australia.