Home Fire was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker and I so wish it had got the nod for the shortlist. It was a stronger, more consistently interesting story than 4 3 2 1, but perhaps the judging committee felt they had ticked the refugee/migrant experience by including Exit West?
Either way it’s a shame, because Kamila Shamsie’s story is engaging, thought-provoking and quite a page turner. It’s easy to read nature beguiles you until you find yourself in the middle of a very serious situation with very heavy consequences. Faith, family, moral dilemma’s and parliamentary heavy-handedness clash head-on in this story of choice and consequence.
Shamsie based her story on Sophocles play, Antigone which is the story of a young girl who has to chose between the law (in particular her uncle Creon, the King of Thebes, laws) or her own moral compass. Shamsie was also influenced by Seamus Heaney’s play about Creon as imagined through the lens of the Bush administration, The Burial at Thebes (2004).
Shamsie’s epigraph referenced Heaney’s play which I now see actually highlights her particular focus within this story – love versus law – the faith of her characters simply reflects modern concerns and gives Shamsie’s story the contemporary touch.
Knowing the basic premise of the play, meant you also knew how the book would end. Incredibly Shamsie managed to create a lot of tension in the build up to this end. The details of the disaster and it’s catastrophic results still caught me by surprise. Being an adaptation, you weren’t quite sure how she would follow the original story and which bits she might adapt. Having a slightly different arrangement of main characters also created some doubt about who, what, why and how.
What makes this story work so well though, is that you can read and enjoy Home Fire all on it’s own without any knowledge or thought of Antigone at all. Universal themes are universal for a reason!
If the Man Booker was still a Commonwealth only award, I believe that Home Fire would have been the stand-out winner. But that’s another debate.