It’s a scene that sets the tone for this ingenious and love-struck novel. Isma is eventually allowed to take off. “Home Fire” takes flight as well.
This novel may seem to wobble in the minutes after its landing gear retracts. There are lurching shifts of tone as it moves between matters of the heart and matters of state.
Do not panic. Order something from the drinks cart. Shamsie drives this gleaming machine home in a manner that, if I weren’t handling airplane metaphors, I would call smashing.
“Home Fire” is set in contemporary London, in Amherst, Mass., and in the Middle East. It plays freely with Sophocles’ drama but hews to its themes: civil disobedience, fidelity and the law, especially as regards burial rights.
Isma has left behind in London younger siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, 19-year-old twins. (Twins are a preoccupation of the author’s.) Isma raised them after their mother’s death.
They barely knew their father, a jihadist who died after being tortured at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. His fame has tainted their lives in the West. Parvaiz is adrift and haunted, however, by his father’s legacy.
He is recruited by ISIS. He joins its media division in Syria. He quickly discovers he has made a mistake. “Home Fire” is largely about Aneeka’s attempts to help her twin come home.
Louise Glück, in her masterful poem “Tango,” observed, “Of two sisters/one is always the watcher,/one the dancer.” While Isma looks on from America, Aneeka begins to whirl.
Aneeka falls into an affair with Eamonn, the son of Britain’s new home secretary, Karamat Lone, a man of Muslim background.
Eamonn is wealthy and beautiful, with “perfect half-moons in his fingernails.” Is this love? Or is Aneeka maneuvering to win his father’s help in getting her brother home? Or both?
Lone, the home secretary, is among Shamsie’s most sophisticated creations. He’s had to thread many needles while rising in British politics. He’s mocked by some for becoming “Mr. British Values. Mr. Strong on Security. Mr. Striding Away from Muslim-ness.”
Shamsie humanizes him. She writes about his “extravagant snort, which his children were always amazed he could restrain from in public life.” The best story told about Lone is probably the one about the time Eamonn was pining over a lost love, a woman his father found diffident. We read about a moment reminiscent of “The Godfather”:
“The door of his bedroom had been kicked open and Karamat Lone had walked in, knees buckling slightly under the weight of the halibut in his arms, ice chips glinting on its skin. He had lowered the massive fish onto his son’s bed, with the single word ‘replacement.’”
Shamsie, who was raised in Karachi and lives in London, is vastly better known in England than in the United States. This is her seventh novel. Twice a finalist for the Orange Prize, she was named in 2013 one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, and she writes essays and criticism for The Guardian.
There are occasional small blunders in “Home Fire.” A consideration of grief, for example, becomes a word goop. “Grief spread its wings large like an eagle, grief huddled small like a porcupine,” Shamsie writes, “grief needed company, grief craved solitude; grief wanted to remember, wanted to forget.” Grief wants to be left alone.
These moments are rare. Her humor mixes freely with her intellection. There is a disquisition on “ecosystem beards,” so named because they are so large they contain entire small worlds.
The humor fades into fatalistic meditations on life lived while straddling worlds. Aneeka comes up with a plan to get her brother home, a plan that will have consequences for everyone in this novel.
It’s a plan so intrepid that Aneeka is asked if she or her brother stopped “to think about those of us with passports that look like toilet paper to the rest of the world who spend our whole lives being so careful we don’t give anyone a reason to reject our visa applications? Don’t stand next to this guy, don’t follow that guy on Twitter, don’t download that Noam Chomsky book.”
“Home Fire” builds to one of the most memorable final scenes I’ve read in a novel this century. It takes place live on international television.
I won’t give away what happens, but something about this scene reminded me of a scene from Satyajit Ray’s 1955 film “Pather Panchali,” as described by Salman Rushdie in his essay collection “Imaginary Homelands” (1991).
“When he shows his wife, Sarbajaya, the sari he has brought for the dead girl, she begins to weep,” Rushdie wrote, “and now he understands, and cries out, too; but (and this is the stroke of genius) their voices are replaced by the high, high music of a single tar shehnai, a sound like a scream of the soul.”
There is high, high music in the air at the end of “Home Fire.”