Renowned British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie has won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel Home Fire. It was the third time that Ms Shamsie had been nominated for the award, previously known as the Baileys Prize and Orange Prize. The other shortlisted titles included: (a) The Idiot by Elif Batuman; (ii) The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar; (iii) Sight by Jessie Greengrass; (iv) When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy; and (v) Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. It is worth mentioning here that Shamsie’s seventh novel ‘Home Fire’ was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and for the Costa novel award.
Announcing Home Fire as winner of the £30,000 award, chair of judges Sarah Sands said the panel “chose the book which we felt spoke for our times … Home Fire is about identity, conflicting loyalties, love and politics. And it sustains mastery of its themes and its form.”
About the Novel
Loosely based on Sophocles’ ancient Greek tragedy “Antigone,” Home Fire centres on three British Muslim siblings who were torn apart when one joined the Islamic State group. This novel is about family loyalty, the manipulative power of sexuality and the place of Muslims in a world that regards them with suspicion.
The novel opens with Isma struggling to be admitted to the United States on a student visa and being trapped for so long in an interrogation room that she misses her flight, a daily reality for Muslims doing nothing more than going about their daily business.
Isma, however, is the daughter of a dead Jihadist and has been on MI5’s watch list since her teenage years, as have her younger twin siblings, the beautiful, intelligent Aneeka and the aimless, malleable Parvaiz. She is a stoic, however, recognising the futility of challenging a system that punishes dissent, and while the novel is rich with political commentary, Shamsie avoids falling into didacticism, preferring to reflect racial attitudes in a tempered fashion than craft a lengthy essay on injustice.
The structure of the novel adds to its success, with five long sections, each of which features one of the book’s protagonists at its core. Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz are at the heart of three, and through their experiences, we are given an insight into the life as a young Muslim in contemporary London. Of the siblings, Isma is the one who is least interested in her heritage, perhaps because of her father’s crimes, wanting nothing more than to pursue her PhD in peace.
Parvaiz, however, is an unfocused young man whose lack of ambition and general ennui leaves him easy to corrupt. His drift toward Isis is well depicted and a scene in which his father’s torture is replicated on him as an example of the barbarism of the West is both difficult to read and painfully authentic. Readers might be surprised by his response to such violations of the body and mind; rather than running as far from his tormentors as he can, he finds himself hungry for more.
The other two sections, featuring a father and son, are equally impressive. Karamat Lone, the home secretary, has turned against his fellow Muslims in his ambition to be prime minister, regularly condemning their refusal to conform to British ways. It would be easy to write him as utterly self-serving but Shamsie crafts a portrait of a more complex man, one who loves his wife and children deeply and who, when accused of hating his own kind, offers another terrific line: “I hate the Muslims who make people hate Muslims”. And it is his son, the sensitive, handsome but entitled Eamonn – “an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name, Ayman … so that people would know the father had integrated” – who draws the entire novel together through his individual connections with each character.
If there is a minor note of discord in the novel, it lies in the use of newspaper articles and inflammatory headlines to tell a crucial part of the story. While impersonating the hackneyed style of tabloid writers – “Pervy Pasha’s twin sister engineered sex trysts with home secretary’s son” – Shamsie runs the risk of sounding hackneyed herself, like an impressionist trying just a little too hard. But this scarcely detracts from her remarkable skills as a storyteller, one who never allows the rhetoric to turn into sermonising. Her characters are multifaceted, their actions unpredictable, particularly in the latter stages of the novel when Parvaiz’s decisions threaten harm for all.
Figures of authority are frequently shown in a sympathetic light, their own moral dilemmas on display, and in doing so, she avoids cliché. Such authorial decisions turn Home Fire into a provocative work which will inspire the admiration of many but may at the same time infuriate readers expecting a more black and white depiction of terrorists versus non-terrorists, Muslims versus non-Muslims, the role of the state versus the rights of the civilian. It takes a brave writer to tackle these subjects in such a nuanced fashion and a fearless one to recognise that there is enough blame for all parties.
Did Kamila Shamsie predict the rise of Sajid Javid?
Home Fire has among its characters a man called Karamat Lone: Britain’s home secretary and child of working-class Pakistani Muslim migrants, who makes his fortune in the corporate world before becoming a Tory MP. People say that Ms Shamsie has predicted the rise of Sajid Javid, Britain’s current Home Secretary as he has a striking similarity with the character named Karamat Lone. Interestingly, Mr Javid is the son of a bus driver Abdul Ghani. Mr Javid read economics and politics at Exeter, the first in his family to graduate. At 25, he became the youngest vice-president at Chase Manhattan Bank. His reputation for success led him to be headhunted by Deutsche Bank where, as the head of credit trading, he earned £3m.
Commenting on this, Ms Shamsie writes:
“If it had been just a few years earlier, I probably would have moved on to another idea. But it was the summer of 2015 and the political landscape of Britain included three children of Pakistani-British bus drivers: Sajid Javid, Sadiq Khan and Sayeeda Warsi, all in their mid-40s, young enough and prominent enough to make you wonder how far any one of them might progress in a few years. The novelist in me couldn’t help but think that a certain kind of narrative logic demanded that if you have three very different people from an unusually similar background occupying the same field, at least one of them must go very far; the feminist in me suspected it wouldn’t be the woman. So, you could say that while Karamat Lone is a product of my imagination, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine him if I hadn’t first looked at that trio of politicians and believed that one of them might one day occupy one of the highest political offices in the land.”