Review

Blistering exploration of divided loyalties

FICTION

HOME FIRE

Kamila Shamsie

Bloomsbury/ Paperback/ 276 pages/$25.96/ Books Kinokuniya/4.5 stars

Isma Pasha, a hijab-wearing Londoner of Pakistani descent, is headed to the United States on a graduate scholarship. But first, she must convince the immigration officer she is British enough to catch a flight out.

The hours-long interrogation at Heathrow airport wades through her opinions on a comical hodgepodge of topics, from the Queen and reality culinary show The Great British Bake Off to suicide bombers and the invasion of Iraq.

"I am British," says Isma, when asked if she considers herself British. "I've lived here all my life."

It is a familiar prejudice in a world rocked by terrorism, where the growing response has been rejection - from US President Donald Trump's "Muslim ban" to the barring of hijabs and burqas in some Western countries - and to belong means shedding aspects of the faith that may mark one as other.

Today, to be Muslim is to have one's allegiances questioned and Home Fire is a blistering exploration of divided loyalties.

In her seventh novel, Kamila Shamsie - who was born in Pakistan, but is now a British citizen - follows the intertwined lives of two British-Pakistani families as they navigate the obligations and expectations of country, community and family.

Isma, as it turns out, has more reason than most to worry about making it past airport security.

Her father was a militant who abandoned his family for the battlegrounds of Afghanistan and Chechnya and died as he was being transported to Guantanamo.

Her younger brother, Parvaiz, has sneaked off to Syria to join the media arm of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a militant group, after being seduced by a recruiter who regaled him with talk of justice and tales of his dead father's bravery.

Isma tells the authorities what he has done and later pleads with an enraged Aneeka, Parvaiz's twin: "There was nothing I could do for him, so I did what I could for you, for us... We're in no position to let the state question our loyalties."

But for Aneeka, Isma's actions are a gross betrayal. If the authorities never knew, she believes, Parvaiz could come home - and her twin wants desperately to do so.

Over Skype, from a compound where the heads of enemy soldiers are mounted on spiked railings, he tells her that he regrets leaving: The Islamic state he was promised was a lie. So, when Eamonn - son of Karamat Lone, the British-Pakistani Home Secretary who "used his identity as a Muslim to win, then jettisoned it when it started to damage him" - turns up, Aneeka starts a romance with him to get Parvaiz home.

Home Fire, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a modern twist on ancient Greek playwright Sophocles' Antigone. In the classic play, Antigone wants to give her brother a proper burial despite orders by the king, who has branded him a traitor, forbidding it.

The same tug of war plays out in Shamsie's book with today's terror threat as the urgent backdrop: Aneeka wants to bring her brother - to her, the naive victim of extremist propaganda - home.

But to Karamat, once Parvaiz made the decision to join a violent terror group, he turned his back on his country and lost the right to call Britain home. "You had to determine someone's fitness for citizenship based on actions, not accidents of birth," thinks Karamat, who wants to expand the home secretary's power to revoke the citizenship of Britain-born single-passport holders suspected of terrorism, as his then real-life counterpart Theresa May did in 2014.

With Home Fire, Shamsie captures the pulse of warily living while Muslim. And though it gets off to a slow, almost cliched start, the story builds and swells as family, politics and faith start to exact their demands, then crescendos in a dark fairy-tale ending that will be hard to forget.

If you like this, read: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books, 2017, $29.91, Books Kinokuniya). A Muslim couple seeks refuge from civil war by escaping to other countries through magical doors.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2017, with the headline 'Blistering exploration of divided loyalties'. Print Edition | Subscribe