As openings to novels go, it doesn’t get more contemporary or urgent than the striking first pages of Kamila Shamsie’s new, Booker longlisted novel Home Fire.
Isma is on her way to the United States to begin her PhD. She is Muslim, and expects an interrogation – so doesn’t bring with her a copy of the Quran or family pictures.
She rehearses her views on “Shias, democracy, the invasion of Iraq, dating websites, the Great British Bake Off”. Finally, the clinching question from the border officer. “Do you consider yourself British?”
“I am British,” comes the curt reply. Finally, Isma is allowed a boarding pass – for a plane she has now missed.
It’s an experience that Shamsie, a Karachi-born, British-Pakistani author, has gone through enough herself. But Isma’s situation is less an angry complaint than a sad reminder.
“You know, I’m actually surprised how many people have told me they were struck by that scene,” the 44-year-old says from her London home. “They say it makes them feel angry or depressed. Then Muslims who read it say: ’oh yes, that reminds me of the time when…’ I can’t think of any Muslim I know who hasn’t had anxieties about being pulled aside at some stage and given an extra level of questioning.
“Being Muslim in Britain is not a non-issue and it’s never allowed to be, whether you’re the home secretary or the son of a jihadi.”
Both of which are characters in Shamsie’s tremendous seventh novel. A loose, contemporary retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, Isma is finally leaving north London to study in America, after bringing up her twin siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz almost single-handedly.
But the family has a dark secret – the father they barely knew was a jihadi at the turn of the century, dying on the way to Guantanamo Bay.
Parvaiz, a seemingly well-meaning teenager, finds out and is coerced into leaving London for Raqqa, to work for the media arm of ISIS. Meanwhile, Aneeka – in the brilliantly contrived fashion of all Greek tragedy – falls for Eamonn, the son of a British Muslim Home Secretary who revokes the citizenship of all dual nationals who leave Britain for jihad.
“Antigone was suggested to me by Jatinder Verma, who runs the Tara Arts theatre company in London,” explains Shamsie. “Greek myths are really speaking to us at the moment – and he asked me to adapt a play for him. So I re-read Antigone and very quickly knew what kind of contemporary tale I wanted to overlay. I didn’t know how to write it as a play, however…”
So it became a novel – “that’s the way my brain functions”, Shamsie says – and the more she explored the ancient story, the more it resonated: particularly in the sections where Antigone must choose between obeying the law of the land or her conscience.
“At the heart of it is the question of how far a government can go in making decisions that have a profound impact on people’s lives – and at what point can an individual stand up and say I will not accept these laws,” she argues. “It’s been coming for a while now in the post 9/11 world; we’re told there is a trade off between security and liberty. To me, having grown up in Pakistan, it’s the language of dictatorship. I’ve always been suspicious of it and the Antigone play crystallises that central conflict.”
Yet Shamsie is canny enough to understand that a satisfying novel can’t just operate on the level of ideas. It’s a play about grief and love. As she puts it, “you need characters and relationships”.
And it’s Parvaiz’s character which is the most interesting in Home Fire. He is young, possibly impressionable, but his love for his twin sister makes his radicalisation seem unlikely at first, not least because he’s not particularly interested in religion.
But, like the protagonists of two recent novels which work as interesting companion pieces to Home Fire – A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi and Small Treasons by Mark Powell – it’s the search for masculinity and identity in a world seemingly set against them which is the most powerful allure of jihad.
“There was an MI6 report looking at people who had gone to fight for Islamic State, and it found that it was pretty difficult to come up with a profile of the ‘kind’ of person who makes that decision,” says Shamsie.
“Even though a lot are young, some are older. Some are married, some are single, some have good jobs, some don’t. In some cases they could quickly take on the zeal of the religious convert and believe that this was a form of Islam but mostly there were other things drawing them – if you look at the ISIS propaganda a lot of it has to do with a sense of belonging, state building, a lack of racism. So I was interested in who would be targeted by that kind of propaganda.”
It’s interesting, too, that in all three books the would-be jihadi finds their new life absolutely horrifying, rather than heroic. It begs the question of why anyone, in 2017, would be seduced from a western city into a life of beheadings and squalor.
“Well, Home Fire is supposed to be set very early in the life of Islamic State, so Parvaiz wouldn’t have the kind of information we can now access,” counters Shamsie. “But I also think you find that there are charismatic men, as in this story, saying ‘I’ve been there, I’m telling you the stories of what it’s like – are you going to believe me, or the western media propaganda which told you Saddam had weapons of mass destruction?’”
Of course, Parvaiz’s story can’t end well. This is a Greek tragedy after all. But Shamsie’s characters are so convincing – each has an extended section written from their perspective – that you almost hope her novel isn’t so bloodthirsty as Sophocles’ play. No such luck – although the pain is leavened by some genuinely witty asides.
“It was so difficult to write the ending, I tried to convince myself I wasn’t writing it, or that somehow at the last moment I’d be able to think of some way to get them out of it,” she admits. “But I started with Antigone, so this is where it had to go, anything else would be false. It was horrible because I had great affection for them as well, but if the novel is working, it does become inevitable that there’s only one ending which will ring true.”
Which is one of the many reasons Shamsie was long listed for this year’s Booker Prize before the book had even been published. She’s surely a major contender for the shortlist, announced on Wednesday, not that she’d dare hope for such a turn of events; this is a writer who admits that, growing up, her knowledge of contemporary fiction of the 1980s was largely shaped by choices made by the Booker judges.
“It’s been fantastic, I couldn’t have asked for a nicer welcome party for the book,” she smiles.
And what does she hope those who will come to Home Fire via the Booker Prize will make of her take on Antigone?
“When you write a novel, you have to leave open different ways of interpreting it,” she says. “You can’t be prescriptive. But I hope people might think a little more about the strangely fraught position of British Muslims.”