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A book of required reading in our time of terror

Kamila Shamsie.

Kamila Shamsie's new novel Home Fire is about the beguiling pull of violent causes.

Kamila Shamsie’s Booker-longlisted wail of a novel begins quietly, with a study in duty and unrequited love.

Isma is the eldest child in a British Muslim family broken by jihadism: her father abandoned his wife and children for his cause and died on the way to Guantánamo, complicating their lives immeasurably. Now Parvaiz, the younger brother who was all but raised by Isma, has been radicalised, too.

We meet Isma at the airport. She is being interrogated on her way out of London to study in the US. She runs through the script she has painstakingly role-played: seven years ago, her mother died and she dropped her studies to devote herself to her twin siblings. “Now they’ve grown up; I can go back to my own life.”

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That life comes to centre on daily elevenses with Eamonn, a familiar face from London, whose father is the new British Home Secretary. Despite herself, Isma falls hard.

But Eamonn only has eyes for her younger sister, 19-year-old Aneeka. Is their golden, all-consuming love for real? Or is Aneeka trying to position herself to secure her twin, Parvaiz – already known to MI5 – safe passage home?

Home Fire is not a book about who loves who, or why. Shamsie unfolds a far more important story: about children beguiled by those who inflict terror, and about the persecution of the families they leave behind. Isma’s experience at the airport is painted as routine to her, wearying but expected: it should horrify the rest of us.

A quirk of the novel is that the characters experience the world, to an odd degree, through their ears: Eamonn records the sounds of his day to play to Aneeka, Isma is soothed by the clicking of her sister’s bracelets and entranced by the sound of hail hitting icicles.

But it’s Parvaiz who is the grand obsessive. He wants to be a sound engineer. His ambition is to spend 1440 days perched on top of a garden shed, recording 1440 minutes of tape, a soundscape that will take up a whole day.

The chapter that sees this sweet, strange teen pulled from the shed to attend a beheading in the Syrian desert is extraordinary, even within a book this accomplished. The malice in his recruitment is so evident, so ingenious, it makes you want to shriek, to warn him, to somehow go back and undo the damage done by a life lived under suspicion.

But the threads knit together and haul the reader to an ending almost too terrible to read. It is a sonic boom of a climax; it leaves a ringing in the ears, the real world blotted out for a time.

“Recommended reading for prime ministers and presidents everywhere”, says the rave blurb from Australian Booker-winning novelist Peter Carey.

I’d add that Home Fire should be shipped out to secondary schools immediately, that it may haunt the leaders and thinkers – and immigration officers – of tomorrow.

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury, $26.99)

This article was first published in the October 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.