Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 21, 2019

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

The (Orange/Bailey’s) Women’s Prize for Fiction can be a bit uneven but there’s always something appealing to add to the shelves from the longlist. I’ve read two from the 2018 nominees, (Elmet by Fiona Mosley and A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert) and I still have on the TBR H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker; and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy.  But I didn’t buy the eventual winner – I’d read two by Kamila Shamsie and while I liked them well enough, I didn’t think they were great.  It wasn’t until I was browsing the shelves at The Grumpy Swimmer in Elwood that I remembered the rave reviews…

Some of the blurbers in my edition of Home Fire refer to its roots in Sophocles’ Antigone, but I am here to tell you that you don’t need to know anything about that.  I read Antigone when I was doing Classic Greek and Roman Lit at university, but I couldn’t remember much of it except that its theme is the conflict between love and the power of the state, and (as you’d expect with Greek tragedy) it all ends badly.  By the time I was thoroughly engrossed in Chapter One of Home Fire, I had forgotten all about Antigone

The story begins with Isma enduring a humiliating interrogation at Heathrow.  After years of mothering her orphaned twin siblings, she is free because they are old enough to look after themselves and she is on her way to do her PhD in America.  The interrogation is so long that she misses her flight.  It turns out that the reason that airport security is so interested in her, is because her father Adil Pasha was a jihadi.  Every member of his family is always subject to scrutiny.

Yes, by coincidence Home Fire follows Charlotte Grimshaw’s treatment of this same theme of surveillance of Muslims in Mazarine. (See my review)

That scrutiny is irritating enough, considering the family was innocent of any connection to Adil’s activities and knew nothing about it until after he died en route from Bagram to Guantanamo Bay.  Only their aunt, Adil’s sister mourns him and yearns to have his body for burial.  But when Parvaiz naïvely runs away to join ISIS, for his sisters in London who’d attributed his secretive behaviour to having a girlfriend, the years of living carefully under the radar as loyal Brits count for nothing.  Isma’s anguish is revealed via Skype:

‘You selfish idiot,’ she said.  This was easier to contend with – he rolled his eyes at Farooq [the ISIS recruiter], placing two fingers against his temples to mime a gun firing into his brain.  ‘Watch your manners, brother.  We have company.’ She swivelled the phone, and two man were standing in their living room, everything surrounding them as familiar as his own heartbeat.  ‘Say hello to the men from the Met,’ Isma’s voice continued, conversational.  ‘They’re going to turn our house and our lives upside down.  Again.  Do you have anything you want to say to them?’

He was conscious of the three men on the balcony watching him, waiting to see his response to the news that the police knew where he was and now there was no going back. (p.163)

Reading Parvaiz’s appalled discovery that what he had been told about a beautiful future under ISIS is all lies, makes one wonder how many of those who’ve run away to Syria were equally naïve.

But, in Australia, as elsewhere, an awareness of ISIS duplicity doesn’t solve the problem of repatriating naïve young people, (or rehabilitating the diehards).  (Or even, in the wake of the fall of the caliphate, rescuing their hapless children).  In Shamsie’s novel Aneeka seduces the son of a tub-thumping Home Secretary in the hope that he can be persuaded to let Parvaiz come home.  What starts out as manipulation becomes real love between them, testing Eamonn when he realises what she wants of him and that he has to choose between his love for her and his love of his father,  (whose career couldn’t withstand any softening of his rhetoric).  Karamat Lone is a cleverly drawn character: a Muslim of Pakistani origin, he has risen to the heights of power by exhorting fellow Muslims to fit in.  In a speech at his alma mater, his words are eerily familiar to us here in Australia:

‘There is nothing this country won’t allow you to achieve – Olympic medals, captaincy of the cricket team, pop stardom, reality TV crowns.  And if none of that works out, you can settle for being Home Secretary.  You are, we are, British.  Britain accepts this.  So do most of you.  But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourself apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties.  Because if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours.  And look at all you miss out on because of it.’ (p.87-88)

Asked by Eamonn if she is harassed because of her hijab, Aneeka (showering at home after a man spat at her on the Tube) tells him about the impact of his speech:

‘If you’re nineteen and female you’ll get some version of a hard time for whatever you wear. Mostly it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to shrug off. Sometimes things happen that make people more hostile. Terrorist attacks involving European victims. Home Secretaries talking about people setting themselves apart in the way they dress. That kind of thing.’ (p.90)

And she challenges Eamonn to think about his own response:

‘What do you say to your father when he makes a speech like that? Do you say, Dad, you’re making it OK to stigmatise people for the way they dress? Do you say, what kind of idiot stands in front of a group of teenagers and tells them to conform? Do you say, why didn’t you mention that among the things this country will let you achieve if you’re Muslim is torture, rendition, detention without trial, airport interrogations, spies in your mosques, teachers reporting your children to the authorities for wanting a world without British injustice?’ (p.90)

Home Fire invites consideration of these timely issues.  It is, unashamedly, a political novel, and Elle at Elle Thinks responds to critics who have the luxury of thinking that politics doesn’t matter.

See also Nancy’s thoughts at Nancy Elin at Ali’s at Heaven Ali.

Highly recommended.

Author: Kamila Shamsie
Title: Home Fire
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2018, first published 2017
ISBN: 9781408886793
Source: personal library, purchased from The Grumpy Swimmer, Elwood, $19.99


  1. […] Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire (Riverhead Books, USA and Bloomsbury, UK) (nominated for the Booker, and won the Women’s prize) Update 21/4/19: see my review […]


  2. […] Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire (Riverhead Books, USA and Bloomsbury, UK) (nominated for the Booker, and won the Women’s prize) Update, see my review […]


  3. I read Home Fire quite soon after it was first published but it’s just recently been serialised on BBC Radio 4 and some of it seems quite horribly prescient – like the Home Secretary character.


    • Yeah well, there’s a politician here in Oz who sets my teeth on edge every time I hear him. His target lately has mostly been migrants and refugees from the African diaspora, but he’ll have a go at anyone if he thinks there’s a vote in it.


  4. The book was so good about conflicting loyalties, love and politics…I didn’t even take notes….just kept on reading!


    • Yes, me too. I had to hunt through the book again to find the parts I wanted to quote.


  5. One to add to the wishlist!


    • I’d love to see what you think of it, being closer to the setting…


      • I haven’t been inclined to buy it cos I tried to read one of her earlier novels and didn’t like it.


        • Yes, that’s how I felt. I thought of the two I’d read, that A God in every Stone was better than Burnt Shadows, but I didn’t feel that I was going to seek out her work on the strength of that. This is a better controlled book IMO, the dialogue feels authentic, and the ending, shocking as it is, feels authentic too.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I thought Home Fire was extraordinary, I often think about it when certain issues are raised on news programmes, such a powerful novel.


  7. Great cover! Will come back and read this if I get to read the book!!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This sounds like a great novel for book groups, plenty of timely themes to discuss and scope for different opinions. I shall have to hope that someone chooses it for our group as we have a rotating pick.


    • Yes, there’s plenty for discussion groups to get their teeth into, for sure!


  9. Judging by The Ministry of Utmost Happiness which I’ve read and your review of this one which I haven’t, it must have been a very political short list. be interesting to contrast the ill treatment of Muslims in India and England. And yes, I think our politicians know their speech legitimises bigotry towards Muslims in particular and non-white immigrants in general.


    • Of course they do. It’s dog whistle politics.
      I am quite heartened by the news that Dutton is selling his Canberra apartment.
      OTOH it may just be that he has plans to move into the Lodge…


  10. […] For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review. […]


  11. […] fear: Home Fire, by Kamila […]


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