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In a recent essay on the heartache that goes with being a supporter of the Pakistani cricket team, Kamila Shamsie used the term “The Unbelievables” to salute their improbable victory over India in the finals of June’s eight-nation Champions Trophy. Pakistan may often be in the news for all the wrong reasons — such as the political crisis brought on this summer by an increasingly assertive judiciary and a defiant prime minister — but it has arguably outshone its giant neighbour, India, in producing fine novelists for some years now. In addition to Shamsie and Mohsin Hamid, British-Pakistani writers longlisted, and in Hamid’s case, shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, any roll-call of storytellers from the subcontinent must include Nadeem Aslam and Mohammed Hanif to name but a few. Even Pakistani TV soap operas, often directed or written by women, have enjoyed a huge following in India.
Home Fire, Shamsie’s seventh novel, is set against a backdrop that is instantly recognisable: the rising prejudice that Muslims in the west now face, which is only worsening at a time when some of their young become militants or join Isis. Isma, the eldest of three siblings living in Wembley, faces a humiliating interrogation at Heathrow airport in the opening pages while she tries to catch a flight to begin a PhD degree in the US. She and her 19-year-old sister, Aneeka, who is studying to be a lawyer, have role-played the interrogation beforehand but nothing could have prepared Isma for what follows. Her suitcase is opened and an immigration officer insinuates that a stolen down jacket is among her clothes. The scene is so finely described that one ends up recoiling and smiling at the same time. Proving one’s “Britishness” to UK immigration here involves having the right opinions on The Great British Bake Off, homosexuals and the Queen. Isma’s story about her graduate scholarship from a US university checks out, but she misses her flight, anyway. When she is finally united with her graduate adviser in the US, Isma receives a text from her younger sister of relief, gratitude and absolution: “Go live your life now — I really want you to.”
Aneeka’s twin, Parvaiz, rudderless in part because of the departure of his elder sister, their de facto mother after their mother died young, is beginning a journey of his own that will later boomerang back to the family. Their father abandoned the family to fight in the Bosnian war as a jihadi in 1995 before going on to Chechnya and Afghanistan, where he was tortured in the notorious Bagram prison and died while being transported to Guantánamo. Parvaiz is the sibling who appears to be most damaged by this truncated childhood; we learn that he spent his teenage years looking at fathers and sons “with an avidity composed primarily of hunger”.
Into this void steps Farooq, a recruiting agent for Isis, dressed in a bomber jacket with a stylish beard, who meets Parvaiz at the greengrocer’s where he works. Incredibly, Shamsie’s depiction of Farooq and his methods somehow matches almost perfectly with experts’ analysis of Abdelbaki Essati, the “hipster” imam believed to have been behind the Barcelona terrorist attack in August. Farooq dresses nattily and appeals to values such as honour and justice, spinning yarns about the father Parvaiz never knew until he aches to make the journey to Syria.
Home Fire is a literary thriller about prejudice and the slide into radicalisation, but it is also an expansive novel about love. Fittingly perhaps, as Shamsie draws on Sophocles’ Antigone, the love affair that anchors the book between Aneeka and Eamonn Lone, son of a prominent British Asian politician and his Irish-American businesswoman wife, is almost overshadowed by the dutiful and loving bond between the three siblings.
As a politician, Karamat Lone is given to speeches that call on the Asian community to work harder at assimilation. On her way to Eamonn’s flat in Notting Hill, Aneeka, who wears a hijab, is spat on in the Tube on the day of one of Lone’s many speeches in this vein, which lead to many heralding him as a future prime minister. As evident in previous novels such as A God in Every Stone (2014) and Burnt Shadows (2009), Shamsie revels in unlikely cross-cultural romantic pairings. Home Fire is mostly a domestic saga, although the distance between working-class Wembley and the Lones’ home in posh Holland Park is marked by a class divide, sometimes jarringly amplified by Shamsie.
Eamonn and Aneeka’s secret love affair spills out into the tabloids after bad news about Parvaiz drives both families to the edge. Shamsie’s imagining of how the British tabloids would cover a romance between the daughter of a jihadi and the son of a leading British politician is deftly done — perhaps not surprisingly, as she has lived in London for several years. Similarly, the ending seems alternately as if it were a made-for-television event that is impossible to draw yourself away from and a morality play that underlines the folly of our political zeitgeist. I read the book twice trying to decide which of the two it was, but mostly because I had fallen under its spell.
Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99/Riverhead, RRP$26, 260 pages
Rahul Jacob is author of ‘Right of Passage: Travels from Brooklyn to Bali’ (Picador)
Illustration by Oliver Hurst