This brilliant novel by Kamila Shamsie won the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year 2018. It is known for its reworking of Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone and its prescience: we read about one of the main characters, Karamat Lone, a British born Muslim, becoming Home Secretary just as Sajid Javid is appointed Home Secretary in April of this year. I chose not to remind myself of the Antigone story before reading and I do think the plot and ideas can stand by themselves as a story of our time- a story about family, love, loyalty and justice- but I will go back to the Antigone connections at the end of this post.
The novel starts with Isma, a young British Muslim woman missing her plane to the States because she’s subjected to an intrusive search and interrogation at Heathrow. We are immediately plunged into a world where to be a Muslim means to be under suspicion, singled out, the object of discrimination. Isma is going to the States to undertake graduate work. We learn that this is a longed-for dream which she’s only now able to realise: for the past several years she’s been bringing up her younger brother and sister, the twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz as their mother and father are both dead. Rather lonely in a biting cold east coast US town, Isma is pleased to run into Eamonn, a young British man of Pakistani origin, who’s in the US visiting his maternal grandparents. Isma already knows his background: he’s the son of Karamat Lone, a controversial MP for the North London Muslim community. Karamat Lone has been highly critical of mosques as gender-segregated spaces and as such is seen to be discarding the traditions of his community in his keenness to emphasise his own integration into British life. News arrives that he’s just been appointed Home Secretary. Through Isma’s Skype conversations with her sister, Aneeka, we realise that their brother, Parvaiz, has disappeared, that the sisters don’t know exactly where he is, but we, the readers, start guessing when Isma refers to ‘this madness he’s joined’.
The novel is narrated from the different points of view of the main characters. We go next to London and Eamonn’s section. His father made money in business before coming an MP and marrying a successful American businesswoman and Eamonn and his sister have enjoyed all the privileges of a middle class, now secular, British upbringing. Eamonn is ‘having a year off’ and now home from the US, Eamonn delivers a package from Isma to her Aunty Naseem and meets and falls in love with Aneeka. They embark on a love affair and Eamonn is truly smitten, but it becomes clear that Aneeka has another agenda- she wants Eamonn to intervene with his father to bring Parvaiz home. Karamat Lone is outraged at this idea and forbids his son to see Aneeka.
The different narrative viewpoints assist characterisation in letting us into the preoccupations and back story of each character- and for me the most powerful is Parvaiz’s story. He’s finished school, and while his twin sister Aneeka goes off to university to study law, he’s not sure what he wants to do, so works in the local fruit and veg shop while making sound recordings at night. His aimlessness is reinforced when Isma gets funding to go to the States, they decide to rent out the family home and the family effectively breaks up. He’s at a vulnerable and susceptible moment in his life and this is exploited by Farooq, who grooms him cleverly and carefully with the result that he leaves for Syria to work for the ISIS media. He experiences the tyranny and cruelty of that regime and is desperate to come home- the writer’s account of his and other young people’s experiences there is heartbreaking and one cannot feel anything but pity for the many young people who are manipulated along this path.
But pity is not in it for Karamat Lone, who, in the denouément of the novel, has a crucial part to play. Both his wife Terry and Isma make a plea for compassion and Isma describes Parvaiz’ slide into radicalism like this:
We saw something was happening, my sister and I. We thought it was some kind of secret affair, his first time in love. In a way it was. What else explains a person being turned inside out in the space of just a few weeks.
For Karamat Lone the issue is maintaining the British government hard line on dual nationals who go to support ISIS- stripping them of their British nationality so they cannot reenter, or showing compassion for the young people who are caught up in the drama including his own son, whom he adores. ( The nationality issues are more complex than this, but more detail would spoil).
So Kamila Shamsie in this story explores issues of loyalty-what does it mean to be loyal to your country, your family and group, your religion- in the very contemporary context of being a British Muslim or British of Pakistani origin? She shows us how this plays out in the lives of ordinary people- the four young people here-but also questions what this means for people in authority through the character of Karamat Lone, whose morals and motivation are at best ambivalent. We know he’s turned his back on the religion he was brought up in-in the name of British secular values? Or merely to gain populist support and to maintain his position of power? Does he actually believe in anything? And here we can touch base with Antigone, for he is the Creon of the piece, the wicked tyrant on whose watch these things happen according to the law, but not according to justice.
After reading the novel I had a quick look at the Antigone story and enjoyed Natalie Haynes’ review of Home Fire which refers to Jean Anouilh’s more modern reworking of Antigone. It’s interesting to compare plot and character, but I do think there’s so much of our contemporary world in this novel, so economically conveyed, so cleverly plotted, that it can be enjoyed without necessarily engaging too much with Antigone, if you don’t feel like it. Sort of in the spirit of sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. This is a fantastic novel and the deserved winner of the Women’s Prize.