“But, is it the fact that this antagonism of valid principles is peculiar to polytheism? Is it not rather that the struggle between Antigone and Creon represents that struggle between elemental tendencies and established law by which the outer life of man is gradually and painfully being brought into harmony with his inward needs? Until this harmony is perfected, we shall never be able to attain a great right without also doing a wrong. . . . Wherever the strength of a man’s intellect, or moral sense, or affection brings him into opposition with the rules which society has sanctioned, there is renewed the conflict between Antigone and Creon.” – George Eliot, “The Antigone and Its Moral” (1856)
I found Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire persistently interesting and often gripping, but by the end I felt dissatisfied with it. Its moral significance–its importance as an interrogation and dramatization of what Eliot calls “the antagonism of valid principles”–depends on our being convinced that it is about a struggle between two principles worth fighting for, perhaps not equally worthy, but each comprehensible as righteous. That means, in particular, in Shamsie’s retelling, that we have to be (nearly) equally engaged by both Aneeka (Antigone) and Karamat (Creon)–and for me these were the two least consistent and compelling characters of the five whose perspectives Shamsie’s novel gives us. Home Fire worked well for me as a highly topical drama about family and politics, but I thought it ended in melodrama, not moral revelation, and that diminished its impact and my admiration.
I should say, as a disclaimer, that I am not at all an expert on Sophocles’ Antigone: though I have known the play’s basic story for many years and seen one production of it, my sense of what it’s fundamentally about depends almost entirely on Eliot’s commentary on it, which I have thought about often as an interpretive key to her fiction, especially The Mill on the Floss. So it is entirely possible that Shamsie has captured nuances of its characters’ principles and actions that make her retelling accurate in ways I can’t see–or, alternatively, that she has up-ended key elements of it for her own purposes in ways that, again, I can’t grasp the significance of. That said, I think it’s fair to expect the novel itself to convince me of the urgency of its central conflict, and it just didn’t. Most importantly, there’s nothing in Aneeka’s relationship with her brother before his recruitment as a terrorist that made her final vigil by his body seem like an inevitable and principled result: her love for her twin was never depicted in a way that gave it tragic potential. Further, her relationship with Eamonn was deceitful and manipulative from the start, and the novel did not convince me that she had come to love him sincerely enough to justify either his sacrifice or her final gesture. As a result, the novel’s final image, though poetic, range false to me.
Karamat, in his turn, came across as mostly self-serving and opportunistic–too much of a politician and not enough of a statesman. “It is a very superficial criticism,” Eliot remarks, “which interprets the character of Creon as that of a hypocritical tyrant, and regards Antigone as a blameless victim”:
The exquisite art of Sophocles is shown in the touches by which he makes us feel that Creon, as well as Antigone, is contending for what he believes to be the right, while both are also conscious that, in following out one principle, they are laying themselves open to just blame for transgressing another.
I’m not sure Shamsie satisfies this proposed standard in either case, actually. As far as I can recall, Karamat never declares an overarching principle: it’s Isma / Ismene who advocates accepting the law, even if it’s unjust, and while she has her part to play, I don’t think she represents the crucial countervailing force in the conflict. Aneeka declares that her principle is justice for her brother, but does Parvaiz’s story justify her stance? His is perhaps the most important and complex one in the novel, both politically and personally, and it is well told: it explains but does not excuse. But what justice is Parvais due–or denied, except by his killers, whose ruthlessness prevents him from trying to undo his own terrible mistake? It’s not just that burial does not carry the same symbolic weight for me as for the original Antigone–that as Eliot says, “we no longer believe that to neglect funeral rites is to violate the claims of the infernal deities.” I accept that her “we” is not in fact universal, but I didn’t feel that Shamsie sufficiently motivated Aneeka’s commitment to burying her brother: it seemed to come almost out of nowhere.
Then there’s the question of what exactly Parvaiz has done and what consequences are in fact just. Is his regret sufficient to win him our sympathy? Where is the point of no return, if there is or should be one? Shamsie makes this question somewhat easier by keeping Parvaiz on the sidelines of the violence he “only” edits and promotes. We also see how quickly he realizes how profoundly mistaken he was (“he knew by then the nature of the joyless, heartless, unforgiving hell-hole for which he’d left his life”) and how trapped he is by then. Though it would of course not have fit the Antigone model, it might have been more interesting if he had come back alive and forced the kind of difficult reckoning with culpability on all sides that the Omar Khadr case did (though of course there are some significant differences, including that Parvaiz is not a child and joins the terrorists willingly and, more or less, knowingly).
Home Fire is a good contemporary novel and its central theme of conflicting loyalties, especially tensions between personal feelings and legal, political, and moral obligations is interesting and obviously topical. I didn’t find Shamsie’s prose particularly artful: on the back cover Aminatta Forna is quoted as calling it “simple” and “lucid” but I would describe it as flat and sometimes awkward, if also sometimes rising to eloquence. I have complained before, though, about novels that make great, or at least memorable, sentences too much of a priority, putting style ahead of substance, and so that Shamsie’s prose is, well, prosaic is not a fatal flaw for me. Neither, really, were the somewhat flimsy grounds (in my view) for the novel’s cataclysmic finish. Maybe I would have felt less disappointed in it if the Antigone allusions had been more subtle and thus I hadn’t expected the novel to be not just a good read (which it certainly was) but also deeply unsettling and morally challenging. The equally cataclysmic ending of The Mill on the Floss is (Henry James’s obtuse reading notwithstanding) prepared for by every previous moment in the novel: that’s why it’s tragic as well as radically dissatisfying. Home Fire, in contrast, seems to rely on its classical inspiration to suffuse its own details with meaning, and the result is unsatisfying in a different, less radical, way.