I don’t normally take advice from the interwebs, but when I took a short “what should you read next quiz” that was posted to the CBR book chat page, the resulting recommendation intrigued me. Home Fire was described as a retelling of Antigone set in modern-day London. I haven’t read any Greek tragedy since high school, so I thought this could make an interesting study, to compare the classic with the modern.
I have to confess, Greek tragedies were never my thing. I ate up all manner of classics in high school and college, but Sophocles, Aeschylus, and friends always left me a bit cold, as I struggled to relate to characters and situations that seemed so foreign to me. Nevertheless, I decided to re-read Antigone; many a story I didn’t care for as a teen has been seen in a new light when I revisited with adult eyes (Catcher in the Rye comes to mind).
In case you need a refresher, the title character of Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and sister to Eteocles, Polyneices, and Ismene. Prior to the start of the play, Eteocles and Polyneices kill each other in a battle for who will rule Thebes. As the play begins, Antigone learns that her uncle Creon has decreed that Polyneices was to blame for the fight that killed the brothers; therefore, he may not receive a proper burial. In spite of her sister Ismene’s pleas, Antigone defies Creon and buries her brother anyway. When she is caught and Creon sentences her to die by being imprisoned in a cave, Haeomon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s betrothed, pleads with his father to spare her. Things escalate, and before you know it, the Chorus is tip-toeing over a collection of dead bodies as they sing about these Greeks and their damn pride.
Faithfulness to the dead and man’s law versus God’s law are key themes in the play. When Creon asks Antigone whether she didn’t know that burying Polyneices was forbidden, she replies, “I heard it not from Heaven, nor came forth / From Justice, where she reigns with God below.” Love and loyalty are tested, as when Haemon is torn between devotion to his father and love for his bethrothed. “Make not, my son, a shipwreck of they wit / For a woman,” Creon warns. Finally, there is pride. Antigone and Creon are both proud and stubborn, which almost makes it inevitable that they will destroy each other. In the end, Antigone loses her life, but Creon loses all that he loves.
In Shamsie’s retelling, the doomed family are Muslims living in twenty-first century London. Unlike the play, the paterfamilias in the novel has not had an inappropriate relationship with his mother and spawned 2500 years of Freudian jokes; rather, he was a jihadist who died on his way to Guantanamo Bay (which is much less funny). After their mother dies, oldest daughter Isma (Ismene) is left to raise her younger siblings, twins Aneeka (Antigone) and Parvais (Polyneices).
The novel opens with a chapter told from Isma’s point of view. I was impressed by Isma and how well-drawn she was as a character, considering how restricted Ismene’s role is in the original play. Rather than be relegated to briefly trying to talk her sister out of disobeying Creon’s orders and then trying to share the blame with her, Isma is complicated in her own right. She meets Eamonn (Haemon), the son of a Pakistani father and Irish mother and is torn by her feelings. Eamonn’s father, while Muslim, is a politician who has gained popularity in London due to his strong anti-terrorist stance, alienating fellow Muslims in the process. Isma is the adult of this novel–passionate yet practical–and I was disappointed when I realized the remaining chapters would each shift to a different character’s perspective.
There’s nothing wrong with this strategy; many wonderful novels have shifting perspectives. It’s just that I like Isma so much more than anyone else in the story, and once the focus shifts, she drifts into the background like her Greek counterpart. Aneeka is as single-minded and unbending as her namesake; Eamonn as simple. The addition of Parvais (whose ancient counterpart is dead before Antigone even begins) is interesting, and yet. . . I just couldn’t muster enough sympathy for the characters to ever feel fully invested in their fates. Parvais, it turns out, has left London to join ISIS in their media division in Syria, and Aneeka will do anything to get him back home. Mustering sympathy for, or at least understanding of, a terrorist is a tricky business, and yet it’s been done successfully before. The much superior American War, and movies like Paradise Now and Syriana all present characters turning to terrorism in a way that allows the audience to recognize how it could happen. Parvais has a home and a family: a twin sister who is devoted to him and an older sister that put her life on hold to raise him. He is so easily manipulated and selfish that he is beyond everyone’s sympathy except Aneeka’s. At one point during Parvais’ brainwashing, he thinks, “He’d never been alone. There had always been Aneeka. Even when she was different, she was still there.” Yet that thought’s not enough to keep him from throwing away his life and shattering his family.
That Aneeka turns on Isma later in the novel is true to the play, but it still sort of pisses me off. And I think that’s the problem. The novel is well-crafted and technically quite good, although I can’t help feeling my intelligence has been slighted by the super-obvious naming of the characters. Greek tragedy has always left me a little cold, and Home Fire didn’t deliver enough to warm me up.