It’s a scene that sets the tone for this ingenious and love-struck novel. Isma is eventually allowed to take off. “Home Fire” takes flight as well.
This novel may seem to wobble in the minutes after its landing gear retracts. There are lurching shifts of tone as it moves between matters of the heart and of state.
Do not panic. Order something from the drinks cart. Shamsie drives this gleaming machine home in a manner that, if I weren’t handling airplane metaphors, I would call smashing.
“Home Fire” is set in contemporary London, in Amherst, Mass., and in the Middle East. It plays freely with Sophocles’ drama but hews to its themes: civil disobedience, fidelity and the law, especially as regards burial rights.
Isma has left behind in London younger siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, 19-year-old twins. Isma raised them after their mother’s death.
They barely knew their father, a jihadist who died after being tortured at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. His fame has tainted their lives in the West. Parvaiz is adrift and haunted, however, by his father’s legacy.
He is recruited by ISIS. He joins its media division in Syria. He quickly discovers he has made a mistake. “Home Fire” is largely about Aneeka’s attempts to help her twin come home.
Louise Glück, in her poem “Tango,” observed, “Of two sisters/one is always the watcher,/one the dancer.” While Isma looks on from America, Aneeka begins to whirl.
Aneeka falls into an affair with Eamonn, the son of Britain’s new home secretary, Karamat Lone, a man of Muslim background.
Eamonn is wealthy and beautiful, with “perfect half-moons in his fingernails.” Is this love? Or is Aneeka maneuvering to win his father’s help in getting her brother home? Or both?
Lone, the home secretary, is among Shamsie’s most sophisticated creations. He’s had to thread many needles while rising in British politics. He’s mocked by some for becoming “Mr. British Values. Mr. Strong on Security. Mr. Striding Away from Muslim-ness.”
Shamsie humanizes him. She writes about his “extravagant snort, which his children were always amazed he could restrain from in public life.” The best story told about Lone is probably the one about the time Eamonn was pining over a lost love, a woman his father found diffident. We read about a moment…