Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Held up at Heathrow due to her skin colour and family history – her Pakistani-born father died en route to Guantánamo Bay – she’s relieved to get through US immigration in Boston. A new start, then? After all, it’s New Year’s Day, 2015.
When she meets another Londoner in a coffee shop, she’s suspicious. Eamonn might be handsome and charming, but he also happens to be the son of the Bradford- Muslim-born Muslim-hating Home Secretary who’s rejected his roots.
Back in London, Eamonn, delivering gifts on behalf of Isma, meets Aneeka and the two seem to hit it off. But Aneeka has an additional agenda: Parvaiz has been in contact and wants to come home. Perhaps her new boyfriend can persuade his father to intervene.
Divided into five sections, each focusing on a different character’s perspective on the developing narrative, the novel examines the complexities of an issue often presented by the news media, and politicians, in black and white terms. As readers, we can empathise with every character, despite their conflicting motivations, even the less attractive people such as the jihadist teenager and career politician.
It’s the individual psychology that raises this above other novels I’ve read about young Westerners giving up their comfortable lives to fight for a questionable cause (including one, Godsend by John Wray, that made my favourites list last year). Brought up by women, his talents overshadowed by those of his sisters, Parvaiz is extremely vulnerable to grooming by recruiters for ISIS, especially when they give him a taste of the torture his father was probably subjected to.
With minimal knowledge of the classic Antigone on which this is based, I read this 2017 novel more with contemporary injustice in mind. Recent legislation enables the British government, often spearheaded by politicians of South Asian ancestry, to strip people of their citizenship, such as the British teenager, Shemima Begum, who became an ‘ISIS bride’ and, most recently, people with the right to remain, yet born in Jamaica, who have served their sentences for sometimes minor crimes.
Beyond this context, the themes of conflicted loyalties can apply to anyone. Do we sacrifice ambition for family? Can we love across an ideological divide? Should we obey or defy an immoral law? These big issues, combined with character depth and fine writing, make Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie one of my favourite reads this year.
The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay translated by
Indeed, it only takes a couple of pages for the boys’ lives to be turned upside down. Their school is closed. One of the twins is briefly hospitalised with serious illness. A bomb kills their grandparents, demolishing their house nearby. Grief stricken, their father tends the orange grove planted by his father. Then an important visitor arrives bearing a heavy belt one of the twins will have the honour of wearing. It will take him to paradise. He will never come home.
Simple language and understatement is perfect for drawing the reader into this disturbing story of children co-opted into an adult war. When, towards the end, the narrative shifts from an unnamed Arab country to North America, some of that early momentum is lost. Although this part delivers interesting plot twists, the introduction of Michael, a drama teacher, feels an intrusion. Did the author create this character because he thought his readers needed a Westerner to help us navigate an alien culture or to illustrate our failures to fully understand the chaos and conflicts of the Middle East?
That aside, it’s a beautiful and thought-provoking novella, first published in Canada in 2015 and in this English translation in 2017 by Peirene Press.
This week’s flash fiction challenge is to write a 99-word story about something a character never dreamed would happen. There are almost too many options, but I’d narrowed mine down to the twin left behind in one of these novels. Then I remembered my short story, “Shall I show you what it’s like out there?” about a woman whose twin returns from Iraq, published in August by Blue Lake Review. You can catch me reading the opening at the end of this post.
As kids they shared a bedroom, a secret language, clothes. Finished each other’s sentences; dressed dolls and made daisy chains; raced cars and fought with sticks. The elder by forty minutes, Faith didn’t mind ensuring Ryan adhered to playground etiquette, doing their homework, answering questions from grown-ups.
She never dreamt he’d wander where she couldn’t follow, where no-one sane would go. She never dreamt he’d shrug off her protection, make his own mistakes. Never dreamt he’d turn up to mock her mortgage, her daughter’s music lessons, her middle-class friends. Spoil her soirée. Make her wish he’d leave for good.