No Religion is Uniform“Home Fire” Offers a New Vision of Women in Islam

Home Fire book coverBook Reviews{ Riverhead Books }
Released: August 15, 2017
Price: $26.00

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This review contains spoilers for Home Fire.

I was immediately drawn to Kamila Shamsie’s new novel, Home Fire, because it takes on radicalization and assimilation in a world where Muslims are asked to constantly disavow ISIS and terrorism. Shamsie’s loose retelling of the myth of Antigone opens with Isma, a Muslim woman who leaves her twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, in the United Kingdom when she emigrates to Amherst, Massachusetts to begin her doctoral studies in sociology. When Isma meets Eamonn, the son of Britain’s home secretary, they develop a tense, but brief, friendship. Isma is a devout Muslim who covers her hair while Eamonn has distanced himself from the religion because his father is tough on immigration and even tougher on terrorism. Though Isma is painfully attracted to this dashing Londoner, he sees their relationship as fraternal, passing, and unimportant. When the novel moves back to England, Eamonn meets Aneeka and the two develop a relationship.

Each character has a different relationship to Islam and Shamsie uses their varying perspectives to illustrates that Islam, like any religion, is not uniform, despite the toxic and dangerous way it is often viewed. Still, she doesn’t shy away from the phenomenon of ISIS drawing young Europeans into its fold. Parvaiz is vulnerable: His mother and grandmother have died. His father, who was associated with an unnamed terrorist group, died on the way to Guantanamo Bay. And his sisters have new lives that he doesn’t have access to. Feeling bereft, he’s easy prey for a charismatic ISIS recruiter. Even though he’s never had an especially deep connection to Islam, Parvaiz finds solace in his new, fiery, father figure and leaves England to join ISIS. When his recruiter leaves, Parvaiz is trapped in his new role within ISIS, but attempts to escape and return home. It could be said that Shamsie is legitimizing the narrative that Muslims are automatically connected to ISIS, but she’s actually doing the opposite. She’s exemplifying the distance between Islam and terrorism, and shows that radicalization has more to do with vulnerability and a feeling of powerlessness than a religious tenet.

Kamila Shamsie and Home Fire book cover

Shamsie also tackles a lesser-told story about some folks assimilating to fulfill goals. The home secretary comes from a family very much like Isma’s, but his image relies on him distancing himself from his immigrant parents and their past; he even has himself photographed walking into an Anglican church with his blonde wife when he is accused of having ties to a mosque that once hosted a man who became a terrorist. Eamonn’s the completion of this assimilation: he is secular, his English accent is posh, and he is out of touch with Islam and the language of his Pakistani father. Assimilation becomes central to the book when the British government refuses to help Aneeka get Parvaiz back because they don’t see them as worthy of protecting or saving.

Shamsie also explores women’s freedom within Islam. Most of Home Fire’s characters fall on the side of “stop shaming women who wear hijabs.” In one particularly striking scene, Aneeka, who has spent the night with Eamonn, rises in the morning to pray. When he asks what she’s praying for, she says, “Prayer isn’t about transaction, Mr. Capitalist. It’s about starting the day right.” Here is an Islamic woman who wears a hijab, dates and has sex, believes in God, and is studying law—which many people don’t believe is all possible at once. But Shamsie is determined to enlighten us through her terrific fiction, which mirrors reality in so many ways.

While Shamsie doesn’t supply answers to the tough questions she asks, there is a clear condemnation of the narrow political focus that accepts only certain ways of being in the world (secular vs. religious, assimilation vs. keeping community). The novel’s plot is tremendous and intricate, and Shamsie is in tight control of it. Each of the book’s sections is told from the point of view of one character, so it’s occasionally frustrating to be cut off from some beloved viewpoints—I could have read a whole novel just about Isma. And though the novel’s ending comes about a bit too fast, there is great intentionality in the book’s pacing, and it’s easy to trust Shamsie as she moves us along at a brisk clip. Ultimately, in Home Fire, nobody gets what they want (including this reader, who aches to know the fates of some of the folks in the book),which makes it heartbreaking and satisfying. But it is an intelligent, phenomenally plotted, and eminently readable novel.

Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli-American writer. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Printer’s Row, Joyland, and more, while her nonfiction and book criticism have appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post, the LA Times, Vice, and more. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring fiction writers both seasoned and new. She enjoys social media too much for her own liking.

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