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home fire

I quite literally started reading Kamila Shamsie’s new novel an hour after it came flying through my letterbox. I had pre-ordered it a few weeks ago when the Booker longlist was announced, and had forgotten it was due to arrive. Having previously read all of Kamila Shamsie’s other novels (though not her non-fiction) I was very eager to get started. I flew through it in two days.

Home Fire is quite simply an extraordinary novel, absolutely essential reading for the times in which we are living. It is a novel about love, and the sacrifices we make in the name of that love, and what happens when loyalties and politics come up against each other. It has been described as a modern re-imagining of the 5th century play Antigone. Whether you know anything about Antigone or not probably doesn’t matter – I didn’t really, so looked it up before I started reading, after which I did have some idea of what might happen in Home Fire – so, perhaps I would have been better not doing that. Still none of that spoilt my enjoyment of the novel which could easily make my end of year list. It is a novel about divided loyalties, politics and extremism, beautifully written, poignant and important, it is a novel for the messed-up world in which we currently find ourselves – with a final scene so shockingly memorable it will leave you gasping.

“The interrogation continued for nearly two hours. He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.”

As the novel opens Isma is undergoing an exhausting interrogation as she leaves the UK for America where she is going to study. It was an interrogation she had expected and prepared for. Several years earlier, Isma had been studying under a Dr Hira Shah, but when her mother died, nineteen-year-old Isma gave up her studies to bring up her twelve-year-old siblings, twins Aneeka and Pervaiz. Now, finally it is Isma’s time, the twins are now nineteen, and Dr Shah has persuaded Isma to take up her studies in Massachusetts where she is now teaching. The interrogation at an end, Isma finally makes her flight – albeit a later one – and arrives in America to be greeted by her old mentor. It’s hard for Isma to shake off the responsibility she has had so long for her siblings, she still has worries, particularly about Pervaiz.

“That had been the only time she had truly, purely missed her brother without adjectives such as ‘ungrateful’ and ‘selfish’ slicing through the feeling of loss. Now she looked at his name on the screen, her mouth forming prayers to keep Aneeka from logging on, the adjectives thick in her mind. Aneeka must learn to think of him as lost for ever. It was possible to do this with someone you loved, Isma had learnt that early on. But you could only learn it if there was a complete vacuum where the other person had been.”

Back in England, Aneeka is cheering her sister on – they talk frequently by skype from Aunty Naseem’s house across the road from the family home which is now rented out. Pervaiz is absent – they don’t talk about him, but Isma watches the skype window anxiously for his name to appear. We soon learn that Pervaiz has gone to Syria – following a dream, to follow in the footsteps of the Jihadist father he never knew – and of whom the family never speak. As the novel progresses we get a sense of how friends and family members both at home and in Pakistan, are terrified to have themselves associated with jihadists, afraid for their families, for their children, their marriage prospects their visa applications. Pervaiz is a young man who we gradually come to see as being terribly lost, a boy obsessed with recording and collecting sounds, he has felt the lack of a father in his life quite acutely, surrounded by women, his mother, grandmother and sisters – and with family life changing yet again, he is ripe for manipulation.

“He had always watched boys and their fathers with an avidity composed primarily of hunger. Whenever any of those fathers had made a certain gesture towards him – a hand placed on the back of his neck, the word ‘son’, an invitation to a football match – he’d retreat, both ashamed and afraid in a jumbled way that only grew more so as the years passed and the world of girls and boys grew more separate, so there were times he was not a twin to a twin but rather the only male in a house that knew all the secrets that women shared with on another but none that fathers taught their son.”

In America Isma takes an apartment, begins her new life in the midst of a bitterly cold winter, she starts to frequent a local coffee shop. Here she sees a familiar face – though it belongs to a young man she has never met. Eamonn Lone, the son of a rising politician, he is from a world of London privilege vastly different to that of Isma and her siblings. Born into a Muslim family, Eamonn’s father Karamat Lone, married to a non-Muslim American designer, has rejected certain aspects of his heritage. Karamat is now frequently outspoken about the integration of British Muslim’s into British life – his son’s name anglicised from Ayman to Eamonn as if to prove how far his family have integrated. Eamonn is a very handsome, charming young man, four years younger than Isma, the two become coffee shop friends, and Isma even feels comfortable enough to tell him about her father.

Eamonn returns to England, and pays a visit to Aneeka and Aunty Naseem, bringing a gift from Isma and is soon drawn further into the family he had heard so much about while in the US. His father has just been made Home Secretary, surrounded by intense security, immediately implementing some controversial policies – it isn’t long before #LoneWolf is trending on Twitter.

To say much more at this point would be to risk spoilers, and I want you all to read this book.

Home Fire, is compelling, intense and fully deserving of its place on the Man Booker longlist.

kamilashamsie

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agodineverystone

It isn’t very often that I pre-order a brand new hardback, however I was already a fan of Kamila Shamsie’s writing and so when I heard that A God in Every Stone was due out in April, I had to make sure I got my copy as soon as I could. Of course the danger with a much anticipated new novel is, that it is so anticipated that it can only disappoint. Thankfully I was certainly not disappointed in this novel – I enjoyed it enormously, however I don’t think it has quite the emotional power of Burnt Shadows (2009) – which I was totally mesmerised by.

Set in England, Turkey and Peshawar in 1914/15 and 1930 A God in Every Stone tells a compelling story of love, friendship, war and betrayal and our place in history, showing us how so much that seems lost to us can never be forgotten.

“If a man is to die defending a field, let the field be his field, the land his land, the people his people.”

Vivian Rose Spencer is a young Englishwoman, the daughter of a man who regretting his lack of sons, allows her to be educated beyond what is usual for her peers. In July 1914 Vivian is in an ancient region of Turkey with a party of archaeologists, which include her father’s good friend Tahsin Bey, his nephew and a group of Germans. As Vivian discovers the temple of Zeus, and hears the ancient stories of Caria (a region of Turkey) and Caspatyrus (thought to be in or near Peshawar), she starts to fall in love with Tashin Bey despite the large difference in their ages. Tashin Bey is on the trail of an ancient metal circlet – The Circlet of Scylax, a quest that will become Vivian’s too in the years to come. When war comes Vivian undertakes to nurse the wounded in a hospital in London, not yet old enough to go out to the front. However soon Viv will turn twenty-three and her father will expect her to join the nurses at the front, as content to sacrifice his daughter to the horrors of war – as he would have been to send his sons to the trenches had he had any. As Vivian waits for news from Tahsin Bey – an intelligence officer pays her a visit; Vivian is torn, wanting so much to make her father proud.

“You can’t betray a man to his friends, only to his enemies, the man from the war office said. What you say will do no harm, and it may do our boys at the front a great deal of good. I can’t put it more simply than that.”

Taumatised by her nursing experiences Vivian flees to Peshawar following the trail that Tashin Bey started her on. On a train she briefly meets twenty year old Pathan Qayyum Gul, returning after losing an eye at Ypres. Qayyum’s allegiances to the British army have been shattered by his experiences, he returns a bitter changed man. In Peshawar Vivian meets young Najeeb, who (unknown to Viv) is Qayyum’s twelve year old brother, Viv starts teaching Najeeb – awakening in him, the love Tashin Bey awoke in her younger self for history and archaeology. The connection between these three will only be fully revealed fifteen years later on the Street of Storytellers during a violent skirmish between soldiers of the British army and Peshawari citizens.

Viv is rather reserved character – I felt she deliberately stands at a distance from the reader; it was hard to feel a connection with her as a character. She is a modern forward looking young woman, educated as a man would have been, and yet disapproving of her friend Mary’s suffragette activities. Viv is fighting her own battle, a battle of grief and guilt, continuing a quest started by the man she loved. I loved the characters of Qayyum and Najeeb. In the days following Qayyum’s return from the war, there is a distance between the brothers, although their love for one another is apparent. Fifteen years later, when Qayyum has found a new war to fight, this time against the British he once fought alongside, the brothers are again more united, although their differences remain.

Shamsie’s Peshawar of 1915 and 1930 – is a place of tradition, a city of burqas, letter writers and storytellers, a place where men look through women rather than at them. The sense of place – as with all Kamila Shamsie’s previous novels is really strong. I have to admit the ending may slightly let this novel down, it felt a bit weak , falling slightly flat for me. However over all I really liked this novel- a definite four star read – and one I would recommend. If you have never read Burnt Shadows however – you must – it is an extraordinary wonderful novel, and for me remains her best novel to date.

kamilashamsie

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