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.