Kamila Sham­sie Blooms­bury; $22.49

The Monthly (Australia) - - VOX - HE­LEN EL­LIOTT

Kamila Sham­sie doesn’t write to en­ter­tain. She writes to ex­plore the way the world func­tions, with a keen eye on that an­cient Greek idea of ev­ery­thing be­ing in flux. Home Fire, her seventh novel, re-engi­neers Sopho­cles’ Antigone, the po­lit­i­cal drama that pits the state against the in­di­vid­ual. What is morally right for one might not be right for the other. Right can le­git­i­mately be­long to both sides.

Home Fire is told in four parts, each de­tail­ing the ac­tions, the de­lib­er­ated per­for­mance, of the four con­nected char­ac­ters. Isma, a bril­liant stu­dent, left univer­sity to care for her young twin sib­lings, Aneeka and Par­vaiz, fol­low­ing their mother’s death. After work­ing in a dry-clean­ing busi­ness for years she has been of­fered a chance to con­tinue a PhD in the United States, and although she be­lieves that the twins, now 19, can look after them­selves, she is anx­ious. The novel opens with a gru­elling scene at the air­port, where, be­cause she is a Mus­lim woman and the daugh­ter of a long-dead but known ter­ror­ist, Isma is abused by the au­thor­i­ties and misses her plane.

In the US, Isma finds con­tent­ment in her work, in her friend­ship with her su­per­vi­sor, and in a ca­sual new friend, Ea­monn. Beau­ti­ful, sweet-na­tured Ea­monn is the son of a Bri­tish politi­cian fa­mous for his rigid poli­cies on ter­ror­ists, a man who con­sis­tently puts the state be­fore the per­sonal. Isma, plain, sen­si­ble, ra­tio­nal, falls vi­o­lently in love with Ea­monn, with no ex­pec­ta­tion that it will be re­quited. At their last meet­ing in her aus­tere flat he picks up a photo of the rav­ish­ing Aneeka. Back in Lon­don, Par­vaiz be­comes rad­i­calised and leaves to join ISIS. Soon he re­alises his fool­ish­ness and, with Aneeka’s help, tries to re­turn. The state has other ideas.

Sham­sie, who was born in Karachi and has spent much of her life be­tween Lon­don and Pak­istan, presents the im­pos­si­bil­i­ties of try­ing to live within and be­tween two in­creas­ingly con­flicted cul­tures. Each char­ac­ter has good rea­sons for their ex­treme po­si­tions, in­clud­ing Ea­monn’s fa­ther, a Mus­lim who grew up poor in Brad­ford. This is not a sub­tle novel; ev­ery­thing is in­evitable as it builds to­wards its tragic but un­mov­ing end. Sham­sie is great at de­tail and re­search but is lost for any psy­cho­log­i­cal depth. Aneeka, who needs to cen­tre the book, be­haves like a ma­ni­a­cal ro­bot, and the rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion of Par­vaiz, with sex­ual over­tones, verges on silly. But per­haps ro­bot-like be­hav­iour and sheer silli­ness are as rel­e­vant as any­thing else in a Trumpian world of con­stant flux?

The book is ded­i­cated to Gil­lian Slovo. If you en­joy the solem­nity and in­struc­tion of her work, you will also en­joy the work of Kamila Sham­sie.

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