book review: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie



HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie
Riverhead Books, 2017


I don’t know why I’d been under the impression that Home Fire was going to be a kind of loose, ‘blink and you miss it’ retelling of Antigone, but I’m almost glad that that had been my expectation, because the reality of this book completely caught me off guard. And I loved it. In this novel Kamila Shamsie gives us a fearless adaptation set in present-day London, following two Muslim families both grappling with family legacy and national identity.

I hesitate to say that you won’t get anything out of this book if you aren’t familiar with Antigone, but just in terms of my own experience, my reading of it was almost entirely informed by the parallels. Just consider that this reads more like a Greek tragedy than it does a contemporary novel – not in terms of prose quality, certainly, but in terms of themes and narrative structure.

There is nothing subtle about the way in which Shamsie riffs off Sophocles, but the hidden depths in Home Fire makes it a rewarding and necessary retelling, as does Shamsie’s choice to reframe the story around an all-Muslim host of characters. The main theme at the heart of Antigone – measuring the power of the individual against the power of a corrupt state – is also the main theme of Home Fire. But it’s complicated here by the fact that the protagonists and antagonists alike are all a part of the same minority group; all striving to live as best they can in a society which continues to alienate and dehumanize them.

The main criticism which I’ve seen leveled against this book – that its characters are flat – is valid, and I agree to an extent, but I also find myself forgiving this more here than I might in another novel. The characters are ‘flat’ as such because they’re deliberately constructed archetypes, and this is where I’m wondering if this would be a less rewarding reading experience for those not already familiar with the original story and characters. The Creon figure here I thought was particularly fascinating for the way Shamsie subverted certain elements of his narrative.

Anyway, I thought this novel was stimulating; the way in which Shamsie uses a classical narrative to give voice to a minority group is one of the best reasons I can think of to adapt a story that’s already been told to death. Home Fire is topical and classical all at once, and an engaging, dramatic tragedy from start to finish.

16 thoughts on “book review: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

  1. I’ve never read Antigone BUT I do remember my philosophy teacher talked to us about it and all I remember is that someone wanted to bury their brother but they weren’t allowed to? OH and my philosophy teacher proceeded to show us a really really weird adaptation of Antigone. I think it was like, some kind of weird dance-themed adaptation or something? I think it was also silent? It was called Antigone: Rites of Passion and it was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

    OH, and I just remembered that in Egypt my 8th grade English class performed Antigone on stage at the end of the year. How do I literally not remember anything at all about this story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Omg!!!! Girl you’ve gotta read Antigone it has been fated!!! But yeah you’ve remembered the plot correctly, basically Antigone’s two brothers were at war with each other for the kingdom of Thebes, they both killed each other and their uncle Creon declared himself ruler and gave one of the brothers proper burial rites and decided the other one had committed treason so he wasn’t allowed to be buried within the walls of the city, so Antigone defies him to bury her brother.

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      • OK SO!! There are SO MANY but here are a few I like:

        Robert Bagg: I think this is a rly good introductory translation – it’s super accessible but still rly well written and this edition includes an essay about Greek theatre that I find super fascinating: 9780062132123

        Robert Fagles: a little more lyrical but also denser. Not terribly archaic tho, I wouldn’t describe this as a difficult read at all, it just has a slightly more classic feel than the others here. I’m also not 100% positive if you can buy his Antigone as a standalone, but IMO Oedipus Rex is the best Greek tragedy so it’s worth reading the whole Oedipus cycle if you’re up for it!!! (Antigone can definitely be read as a standalone tho.)

        Anne Carson, Antigonick: I wouldn’t recommend starting here because it is a SUPER WEIRD and like….. experimental translation but if you like the play it’s worth checking out eventually bc Anne Carson is the contemporary queen of classics translation and this version is so compelling.

        Seamus Heaney, The Burial at Thebes: I haven’t read this in its entirety but Seamus Heaney is always a good bet tbh

        Liked by 1 person

      • AMAZING thank you!! I’ve always been intrigued by Oedipus so perhaps I’ll attempt that one as well!

        Liked by 1 person

      • YAY!!! The second play in the trilogy is like…. decidedly boring lmao but at least it’s a quick read if you want to do the whole Oedipus cycle. Or if not, Oedipus Rex and Antigone can definitely be read alone.

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  2. I’m so glad you liked this one! I’ve been meaning to get to it; it’s been nominated for so many awards! I read ANTIGONE for class last year, so I’m curious to see how HOME FIRE compares. Thanks for the review, Rachel! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I know what you mean, I’d been meaning to get to it since the Man Booker longlist last year, but now the Women’s Prize longlist gave me the excuse I needed. I hope you like it when you get around to it! It’ll be great to read when Antigone is still fresh in your mind.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The retellings might be better than originals sometimes, although rare. This is one of the ones I haven’t read in womens prize shortlist, I am wondering if I should read this before winner is announced!


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