In Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire,” the shameful legacy of a dead jihadist father haunts his three children, although they never knew him. They have lived in London all their lives, Isma, the eldest, having been forced to take charge of her siblings for the past seven years, since their mother’s death. Now, as the novel opens, each of them is pursuing a life apart from the others. The two sisters are anxious about their brother, Parvaiz, who is in Syria training to join the Islamic State. His twin sister, Aneeka, is remaining in London, where she attends university. Isma is free at last to resume her studies, and so she is leaving for America to pursue her deferred dream.
Divided into five sections, with shifting points of view and focus, “Home Fire” begins with the matter-of-fact sentence, “Isma was going to miss her flight.” It’s an effective, nearly cinematic start, with Isma confined in a small room by the security forces at Heathrow Airport, her suitcase open, her clothes all in a heap. The object of blatant racial profiling, she is cross-examined, condescendingly and relentlessly, by immigration officials who begin with the question, “Do you consider yourself British?” Isma answers for nearly two hours, managing to keep an even tone and refrain from the temptations of sarcasm or irony as she is quizzed about “Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, The Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.” An officer clicks through her laptop’s browser history. “He knew that she was interested in the marital status of an actor from a popular TV series; that wearing a hijab didn’t stop her from buying expensive products to tame her frizzy hair; that she had searched for ‘how to make small talk with Americans.’ ”
After that prologue at Heathrow, the story begins again with Isma waking up in her grad student life in snowy Amherst, Mass., where she leaves her studio apartment to walk a few blocks to work in her favorite cafe. Shamsie excels at lovely descriptive writing of small moments, and most readers will succumb to Isma’s charms sufficiently to forgive the coincidence of the story’s inciting event: Isma notices a familiar face across the cafe. He is Eamonn, the handsome half-Pakistani, half-Irish American son of Karamat Lone, a former family friend, now despised. Lone senior — known as the “Lone Wolf” — has distanced himself from the entire Pakistani British community ever since making his name as a conservative member of parliament for denouncing the “backwardness” of British Muslims.
Over a series of flirtatious encounters, Isma gets to know Eamonn without revealing that she knows he is the son of the Lone Wolf. Finally, Eamonn admits it, with the news that his father has just been appointed the new home secretary.
Is it attraction or opportunism that draws Isma to Eamonn? Where can this mismatch go? Not where you think. In another novel, the Lones and Pashas might have been modern-day Montagues and Capulets, but Shamsie is inspired by a much earlier family drama. The novel’s epigraph is a line from “Antigone,” translated by Seamus Heaney: “The ones we love . . . are enemies of the state.”
Shamsie, who was raised in Karachi and now lives in London, is a brilliant and experienced author of prizewinning novels, and there is no doubting that “Antigone” inspired her, but “Home Fire” succeeds without forcing this context. While Colm Tóibín’s recent (and extraordinary) novel “House of Names” is a retelling of Clytemnestra’s story of murder and revenge, “Home Fire” treats its source much more distantly. This is a haunting novel, full of dazzling moments and not a few surprising turns, that manages to be suspenseful despite its uneven momentum.
When deep religious and political conflicts get personal in this story, beliefs and choices and agendas are inevitably on a fatal collision course. “Home Fire” blazes with the kind of annihilating devastation that transcends grief.
Katharine Weber, the author of five novels and a memoir, is a professor of creative writing at Kenyon College. Her new novel, “Still Life with Monkey,” will be published next year.
On Aug. 24 at 7 p.m., Kamila Shamsie will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.
By Kamila Shamsie
Riverhead. 276 pp. $26