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Book Review: 'Home Fire' by Kamila Shamsie

Updated: Jan 24, 2021

Verdict: A must read

Passing into my local bookstore, this book greeted me at the opening display table. Shortlisted for the 'Costa Best Novel Award 2017' and winner of 2018's 'Women's Prize for Fiction' I decided Kamila Shamsie's 'Home Fire' was a worthy purchase, especially with my interest in foreign identity in London and South Asia.

The book centres around a British family with Pakistani heritage. Anneka, Isma and Parvais are everything you'd expect from a typical group of siblings. Love, rivalry, jibes and affectionate comments. What you wouldn't expect is that one has become a terrorist.

This book deals head on with everything connected with UK: the grooming of young men to fight in Syria, the UK press and how it responds and how a family in the middle of it all function, or don't amongst many other themes and nuances.

Aneeka, the centre of the book is a typical young urban well educated and bright, intelligent young woman. Her sister goes to the USA to study, her Aunt a typically house proud and welcoming person. On social media, Aneeka and her sister Isma connects typically easily and is able to speak with humour, affection and warmth. They used to with Parvais too. It is the surrounding collateral damage that sparks a whole sequence of factors in the book that gives so much to the novel without descending into farce or one-dimensional darkness (the semse of 'normalcy' of family and place is rarely absent in the book). Just why did her father become an Islamist terrorist and why did her son, her brother follow.

Shamsie moves between the political dimension and of being a Muslim in Britain to the normal everyday events that surround the young urban middle class in sparing but absorbing prose and this is where the novel is at its finest.

The questions of identity, integration and religion are all there and questioned. Beyond this, the book confronts the reader with the reality that being British, Muslim and a minority really doesn't always make you very so very 'different' and confronts that sense of political 'otherness' that dominates some media coverage today. Yet, the grooming of young men to become Islamist fighters is all present and the quick transformation of the young brother Parvais is as mystifying as it is terrifying. Shamsie describes and narrates the transformation in tight pacey prose without political comment.

There is an authenticity to this book that is impressive and the family aspects are well drawn. Both men and women are well constructed and the characters develop a fullness for the most part. We don't get to really penentrate into Parvais' life as much as I think could have been done, though that should not diminish what is a book where all other characters, including politicians are movingly examined.

There's a juxtaposition between coldness, warmth, violence and love that has all the makings of an epic though the efficient prose keeps the book moving, allowing the book to be in a sense a taut thriller.

At a time in the UK where perhaps identity has never come into some much question, where Islam for some has become a religion to be wary of, this book is a timely illuminator and confronts the issues head on. By the end, answers are not always present and the book doesn't attempt to preach or jarringly 'convince'. We are exposed though and we are conflicted and I think here Shamsie has very much written a novel of our time. By the end of the novel my mind was locked in thought and I was slightly breathless - I'd recommend.

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