Today’s post marks the halfway point in my goal to read all of the books shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve already read and reviewed The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, which I loved, and When I Hit You, which I wasn’t so much a fan of. As you can see from these two reviews, my reading so far has reached quite opposite ends of the spectrum. This meant that I was quite unsure when I picked the next book up what could lie in wait for me. I has heard such great things about When I Hit You that I was concerned another book which has achieved similar praise might also be a disappointment.
The book I decided on was Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a book which seems to be getting pretty great reviews across the board for the difficult topics it has broached. The book focuses on three siblings; Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz. With both of their parents dying when the siblings were young it has always been left to Isma, the oldest child, to care for her younger twin siblings. They have had nothing but each other, bound by the familial ties of love in a suburb of London which has not always been kind to three Muslim children. But a dark past has been working against Parvaiz until he is driven away from his family, flying to the other side of the world to fulfill a legacy of the jihadist father he has never known. Heartbroken Aneeka would do anything to see her twin return, his missing presence a physical ache she cannot heal. Isma, whilst she also suffers his loss, is more cautious about what appearances might show, eager to distance herself and her sister from the brother who is branded as a terrorist.
I have to be honest when I say that at first I didn’t necessarily warm to the characters or the plot of this book. The novel has different sections which each follow a different character as the novel progresses. The first two sections are given over to the two sister, Isma and Aneeka, and I found it hard connected to Isma whilst also disliking Aneeka’s character. The plot seems a little bit stale, as if we were being giving only the basic sides of their lives. However, the novel did begin to pick up pace from this point onwards, building on the groundwork which has already been established and growing in power with every page. Each consecutive narrative becomes more and more addictive, bringing more problematic decisions and questions into the limelight and drawing us into a story we can’t help but want a resolution to. Whilst I may not have initially enjoyed the perspectives from each of the sisters, by the end of the novel I felt that I understood their actions much more clearly, as if I had been given a chance to peer behind the curtain and gain access into what it might be like to live their lives.
For me the parts of the novel which I found the most riveting were by far the narratives of the different men. For some reason I found these parts to be the most saturated in all of the many shades of realism. In particular, the brother Parvaiz was an extremely fascinating character to follow. Each of his actions felt believable, never feeling orchestrated by the author for the sheer sake of pushing her plot forwards. The author does not shy away from the truth of this characters experience, whilst also showing us how their actions impact not only on themselves but on those around them.
I also thoroughly enjoyed (if that word can be used), the narratives of the Home Secretary. Whilst I don’t have a massive knowledge of politics it is becoming more and more prevalent and important that my generation take part in these discussions. Having a character such as the Home Secretary really brought this conversation of politics with regards to race and religion to the forefront. The author also poses many difficult questions and scenarios to us. The Home Secretary was born a Muslim and might still identify as a Muslim, yet he also needs to be seen as passing judgement on certain Muslims, putting Britain ahead of any of his internal religious views. There’s a great sense of hypocrisy and frustration, as well as sadness, and it’s something I’ve never truly considered from this perspective before.
Of course, such topics as politics, religion and race are always going to be considered controversial in our current social climate. It would be naive to suggest that such themes aren’t going to bring the focus towards terrorism, and indeed Parvaiz is left with the legacy of his Jihadi father to reconcile within his own self. The author has carefully and cleverly tackled such a sensitive yet also needed topic. The themes within this book as well as the plot and characters work together to bring back the conversations regarding this to the front of our minds. It allows the readers to examine the different questions such themes pose, making people aware of the different truths and suggesting that the need to openly discuss such things is vital. Terrorism is something we cannot hide from and it’s something that is constantly in the media, so opening up the discussions so that more and more people can begin to understand and fight prejudices can only be a good thing. The honesty in the book and the different perspectives we are given across the board are what make this novel work. It feels real, as if we are reading about a headline which has recently hit the news. It feels real and relevant because such topics are real and relevant.
As well as the focus upon her characters and the thematic issues, the author has also shown her skill in the various literary techniques she has employed. Whilst the majority of this novel is through the traditional form of prose, we also get a diverse mixture of emails, newspaper articles and even Twitter posts. These are woven seamlessly into the novel and are a very interesting way to explore the novel’s ideas more fully. Likewise, it once more makes the novel all the more relevant to current society, as these are the kind of media formats we are presented with on a daily basis. Every day we are bombard with various information and news reports be it through the traditional printing press or the more modern ways of social media. A book which looks at the current social climate can only be further enhanced with such media.
I was worried when I started this novel that it might well be a case of style over substance, the kind of book which gets shortlisted for awards because of the issues it is dealing with rather than the actual writing or execution. Thankfully, I needed have worried about this. This is a sharply written, incredibly thought provoking book which shines a light on that which so often gets cast into various shadows. Whilst I have to admit that the ending was not necessarily the most satisfying for me personally, it didn’t distract from the relevance of this book and the clear skill the author has shown.