One of the problems with the classics is that their motivations can seem so far removed from our everyday lives. Even if the works can stand alone on their artistic merits, there’s often a lot of phobic nonsense distracting to modern-day readers who don’t have the privilege of merely ignoring such in our day-to-day: must we have to pretend it’s not hurtful in our entertainments either? The fact that appreciation of said classics often relies on a knowledge of the mores of their times in order to be comprehensible further alienates today’s readers, especially when the gatekeepers of such knowledge are themselves often of a, shall we say, classical persuasion that seems focused entirely on Then as opposed to Now. What point can there thus be in engaging with the classics when all they support is a fossilized worldview that seems perishingly meaningless in the face of our complicated times?
Even so, a classic is often a classic because the themes resonate, centuries on, even as the details too often detract from fully enjoying them. This is one of the reasons I’ve always been so fascinated by retellings, whether they be of fairy tales, legends, myths or plays. The resurgence of fairy tale retellings at the turn of the century was a godsend for me, and even more recently there’s been something of a trend in literary novelizations, whether to great effect (Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, arguably Hannah Capin’s The Dead Queens Club which deals with history made legend,) or less so (Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under.) That was a large part of why I picked up Home Fire, a novel I would probably never have bothered with otherwise if I’d had only the blurb to go on. You’d think it was tailor-made for me — British Muslims worrying about their families in a time of increasing, encroaching terrorism — but honestly, I turn to fiction because I don’t want to deal with my real world problems for a span. I was, however, intrigued by the idea that the writer had loosely based this book on Sophocles’ Antigone. The original had never done anything much for me, but the concept, the idea of the re-telling, drew me in.
And wow, I get it now. Kamila Shamsie takes the abstract principles of burial and government and meaningless deaths, and translates them into concrete, modern-day examples that finally, finally get me to empathize with why a woman would throw away her own life over a dead relative. Broken into five parts, this tale begins with Isma, the dutiful older sister who gives up a chunk of her life to raise her siblings. When they’re finally grown up enough to be left on their own, she reclaims her academic trajectory, finally able to go abroad for her PhD. While in America, she runs into Eamonn, the son of a polarizing British politician, and accidentally sets him on a trajectory to meet her sister, the alluring, headstrong Aneeka, whose love for Eamonn will always be second to her love for her twin, Parvaiz. Parvaiz has been seduced into terrorism and desperately wants to come home, but Eamonn’s father, Karamat, the new Home Secretary, will do everything in his power to make that an impossibility. It’s a compelling narrative of heartbreak and disaster that it’s difficult to look away from: a train wreck, but in the best possible way.
Ms Shamsie takes the tale of warring Thebans and makes it modern and topical and, thus, relatable. In her telling, it’s less about gods and honor — religion here is more decorative than propulsive; fight me over it, if you want — and more about family and love. There’s probably a classicist somewhere fanning themselves over the temerity, but honestly, it’s the only time I’ve ever cared about Sophocles, so. There was a point near the middle of Isma’s bit where I was starting to roll my eyes at the MFA-ness of the writing, but it grew stronger and more self-assured as the book went on, leading to a devastating, indelible ending.
Home Fire well deserves all the accolades sent its way. If you care a whit about Antigone, or even if you want to know what all the fuss is about, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.