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: