With two stories in the news today – Safir Boular, at 18, being the youngest girl to be convicted of terrorism offences; and Alia Ghanem speaking of her son. Osama bin Laden – about terrorism and the legal system and family, the importance and relevance of a book like Home Fire is painfully apparent.
The book opens with Isma Pasha leaving Britain to begin a new life in America studying for a PhD in Sociology at the request of her mentor, Hira Shah. As an Asian, she was detained and interrogated and search and the opening scene is darkly comic as Isma
repacked when the man left the room and spent the time since worrying if doing that without permission constitutes an offense. Should she empty the clothes out into a haphazard pile, or would that make things even worse?
When interrogated, she is quizzed on her thoughts on “Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, The Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites”. And that, having examined her browser history, he knew that “wearing a hijab didn’t stop her from buying expensive products to take her frizzy hair”.
The difficult questions about family are flipped over and it is only later that we understand why they are so fraught: her father Adil Pasha was both an absentee father and a terrorist; her brother Parvaiz Pasha had recently gone to Syria as part of the media wing of ISIS.
It is a brave brave thing to do as an author, to address so directly such an emotive situation and scenario. The risk of being accused of glamourising terrorism or of demonising the Islamic community or of offending someone must have been terribly high!
And she manages the tightrope beautifully.
By focussing on the human.
Isma is a real and palpable character and her feelings for her sister Aneeka and Parvaiz, and her friendship with and affection for Eamonn Lome – son of Karamat Lone the Home Secretary – when they meet felt very real and credible. She is soon relegated to a minor role once Eamonn leaves America and subsequently meets Aneeka.
Parvaiz, when we hear his story from his point of view – how courageous to give a voice to a member of ISIS! – is a lost child.
The outcome of the two families coming into contact was never going to be positive! Doubly so as the novel is a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone. Retellings are strange beasts to me: if the novel doesn’t work on its own merits, the fact that it’s a retelling is never going to save it. What it does do for me is let me forgive the somewhat stretched coincidence of Isma meeting Eamonn in the first place! And also elevates what could have come across as melodrama in places to almost a mythic stature.
There is one chapter exploring grief towards the end of the novel which absolutely explodes with raw lyrical pain and agony. I had been toying with giving this four stars but on the strength of that one powerful awful chapter, I am pushing it to five.
It is a wholly worthy winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction and deserved to be at least shortlisted for the Man Booker last year.
It was very telling to me that Ali Smith’s name is included in the credits and acknowledgements for this novel: it shares with Autumn and Winter Smith’s courage and bravery in tackling very contemporary issues alongside the more mythological and transformational nature of Ali Smith.
Plot / Pace: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Date: 22 March 2018