Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is great. It’s a contemporary retelling of Antigone, which for those of you not up on your Greek mythology is told in the Sophocles play by the same name and is about a bunch of battles and Antigone – sister, daughter, all round righteous lady – defying the king’s order by insisting the her brother’s dead body be buried. A bunch of spoilers follow, so if you’re going to read it (and you should) you might want to stop reading here.
The differences in this version are many, and I won’t bore you with a blow by blow of the adaptation, except to say that in the novel we witness the sister of a ISIS fighter pitted against the Pakistani born, British Home Secretary (I only specify he’s Pakistani born because his racial and religious background is a preoccupation of the story) in an effort to repatriate her brother’s body. In my past life as President of the Latin Club (a distinction I still brag about) I knew more things about Greek myths than I did about pop singers (probably accounting for my spades of friends and admirers). Alas now all I recall is ‘dead brother.’ Oh well. Onward!
Some of the things that make the novel great:
- Shifting narrative point of view. The story unfolds across five major sections, each narrated in third person limited from different characters. The effect is at once a tunneling and an expansion of empathy and concern.
- Plot pacing. The shift in pov also allows the plot to unfold like a snowball down a hill, ever gathering speed, as at first this reader didn’t know what the book was ‘about,’ and so was pulled into the story with shifting expectations of genre and ‘point.’ It opens in a way that makes you think pastoral romance, and by the middle of the book its something of a political thriller, and by the end you recognize it in its archetypal form of tragedy.
- Superb, un-showy writing. Particularly in the descriptions of Eamonn and Aneeka falling in love, and in Aneeka’s grief. Spare, warm, precise.
If nothing else this novel introduced me to Kamila Shamsie, twice short listed for the Orange Prize, (which as I’ve always said picks reliably great novels) and so now I have some more reading to do.