Greek Tragedies and Shamsie’s Home Fire

Occasionally, I plunge into a book without any foreknowledge – no reviews, no jacket blurbs (thanks to Kindle), no personal recommendations. I added Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire to my Kindle collection solely on the basis that it had won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

In brief, the story is set in Britain’s Pakistani community at a time when Britain has its first Muslim Home Secretary (the book went to press before MP Sajid Javid became Home Secretary – a fortuitous coincidence). The Secretary’s son gets involved with a young woman whose twin brother, desperate to learn about their dead jihadi father, has left the UK to join ISIS. As the narration weaves its plot, it reflects on the nature of grieving and the power of loss alongside the machinations of our 24-hour media.

When one of the principle characters dies (no spoiler here) the reaction from one of the other characters is fierce and edges on melodrama. At that point in my reading I started to think about this as a Greek tragedy. Then the unburied corpse appeared. Lightbulb – this is a retelling of Antigone. For me, this realisation happened well into the novel. That, I think, is a good sign. The story reads as something very modern and gratefully without all of the self-righteous suicides of Sophocles’ original play – apologies to classicists.

This modern-day Antigone veers from the original in several other ways, which really would be a spoiler to talk about. But I will say this, unlike other versions (Brecht, Anouilh, etc.), this one has a cracking sense of humour that I wouldn’t have expected had I been told about the book and its themes beforehand. Clever banter between the characters, especially the adult twins who jibe each other in text messages, keeps the story pacey and the tragic elements more shocking and poignant.greek tragedies 2

Of course, by reading this blog, you won’t have the same lightbulb going on in your head somewhere in the middle of the story. But in our time of online reviews, book groups and reader talk, you probably would have heard it from someone anyhow.