After years spent bringing up her younger siblings following their mother’s death, Isma Pasha swaps London for Massachusetts to recommence her academic studies under the tutelage of “mentor and savior” Dr. Shah. She arrives on New Year’s Day with high hopes of a new start. However, a chance encounter in a café with Eamonn, a fellow Londoner and son of the British Home Secretary, awakens a ghost from Isma’s past, stokes current tensions and triggers a chain of events in which two families converge, then clash.

Stripped down to these bare essentials, Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel sounds vague and whimsical. It also sounds like one woman’s tale. In fact, Shamsie has produced an absorbing and incisive study of race and roots, attachment and affiliation — to a cause, a country, a person, a family — which encompasses five fascinatingly divergent viewpoints. After a stuttering start that relies too heavily on coincidence (that fateful, catalytic meeting), “Home Fire” quickly ignites and roars into life.

Its vitality stems from its driven and impassioned characters. We leave lovestruck Isma for Eamonn and his own misplaced hopes and wrong moves. Back in London he falls for Isma’s beautiful sister Aneeka, and a relationship soon develops, conducted at her behest in secret. But at this stage the reader knows something that Eamonn doesn’t: the father Isma and Aneeka never knew was a jihadist who died en route to Guantanamo; and their brother, Parvaiz, has followed in his footsteps by heading out to Syria and pledging allegiance to ISIS.

As the novel unfolds, more characters are heard and the narrative becomes a patchwork of perspectives. There is Aneeka, who, while having genuine feelings for Eamonn, also recognizes an opportunity, seeing this politician’s son as a possible means of getting her twin brother home unscathed and unpunished. There is Parvaiz, the idealist and later reluctant fundamentalist, who comes to realize that he is not only out of his depth but also that he is “his father’s son in his abandonment of a family who had always deserved better than him.” And finally there is Eamonn’s father, controversial and uncompromising “integrationist” Karamat Lone, or “Lone Wolf,” who has fixed ideas of what constitutes Britishness and even more entrenched beliefs about the Pashas: “Terrorism as family trade.”

The novel is marred in places by some unconvincing dialogue (“You arrived at the foothills and your mind catapulted you to the summit”). Fortunately, though, Shamsie’s heavy-hitting drama and piercing insight provide more than adequate compensation, from Isma’s interrogation by airport “security monkeys” at the beginning to the book’s boiling-point, fever-pitch climax. Shamsie’s middle section, which focuses on Parvaiz’s radicalization at the hands of the sinister Farooq, proves simultaneously chilling and gripping.

“Home Fire” is a shrewd contemporary reimagining of Sophocles’ “Antigone.” It is also a timely and incendiary read about the differences that divide and break us and the shared strengths that keep us together.

 

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Home Fire
By: Kamila Shamsie.
Publisher: Riverhead, 288 pages, $26.