Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Home Fire

Finished Kamila Shamsie's reworking of Antigone, Home Fire, last night. Because I didn't sleep well, I am still confounded by dreams and am only partially present inside my own body. What follows will reflect this state of mind and body.

(Note: this is not a review. It might not even be coherent).

I read this book more slowly than I normally would. These days, when I can barely hold a thought from the time I begin any action to when I finish it, many details remained vivid, not all of them visual (which is why it would be hard to recount them here; they often depend on how they were said). Shamsie has become very very good at this.

Shamsie has such a light touch with her storytelling - and this is a thing to be celebrated - but I've often felt disappointed, sometimes about specific things and sometimes that the writing fell short of her ambitions. I've wondered why that should be. Here, though, the foundation text by Sophocles, with the resonances accumulated by all the other versions (Shamsie acknowledges Anne Carson and Seamus Heaney but I read this, inevitably, also through Jean Anouilh) makes for an unshakeable foundation that holds Shamsie steady as she recontextualises the fundamental opposition of [any kind of] individual and the State, the State and its declared enemies,  of law and justice, of morality and pragmatism.

She gives Isma/Ismene, Eamonn/Haemon and Parvaiz/Polynices (who is only ever an already-dead body in other versions) entire sections of they own and these first three sections are the very heart of the book.

I did not realise this. I reached the end of the section titled Parvaiz and though I wanted to keep reading, I told myself that the best bits, the crucial encounter between Aneeka and Karamat (Antigone and Creon) needed my complete attention and a good chunk of time.

I'll just state very briefly that my first and continuous reaction to the Aneeka section was, 'Oh dear. Oh no. Why?' 

I should also say immediately that my disappointment was not a deal breaker, because what had gone before was so impressive and immersive that for the first time in the book, I was able to hold myself back and ask questions even as I was reading.

I don't have definitive answers, of course. Only Shamsie - and maybe not even she - knows why this section plays out as it does. My hunch is that all this time, Aneeka is seen through the eyes of all the people who love her most. And yet, through each person's eyes, though something new is revealed, much more remains mysterious. The moment that Shamsie entered Aneeka's mind is the moment we could reasonably expect to know this character at last. There would be no Antigone, whatever the versions are called, without the speaking, thinking, vocalised presence of this character.

Unfortunately for Shamsie, she steps into Aneeka's point of view at the moment when Aneeka is utterly disintegrated by grief at the death of her twin. She is confounded, the very manifestation of the phrase out of her mind and Shamsie attempts to chronicle this by a peculiar kind of fragmented narrative. Sometimes these are in the form of tweets or media reports; at other times, something that reads like a diary but cannot possibly be, because though it might be in Aneeka's voice, she is also present in these brief pieces of text in the third person. 

Because Shamsie takes away from Aneeka the power of speech, what direct speech there is is far from powerful. I don't have the book to hand as I am writing this, but when she speaks to Isma, she is petulant (Get off his shed, she says, I think); with Abdul, to helps her get out of the country and to Karachi, her conversation consists of telling him she knew before he did that he was gay. The point of this conversation is not what she says, but his confession and explanation for why he needs to make amends.

The only word of power uttered in this entire section - that I hoped would be the first part of the battle with Karamat (which was always the symbolic heart of the story) - is the word 'Justice' : her single word reply to a reporter asking her, as she leaves for her flight, what she hopes to achieve by going to Karachi.

Aneeka has lost her power of speech, upon which so much depends. But this is a novel and not a play, and in a visual world, we expect actions to speak louder: a gallery exhibition of images, each squeezing out a thousand words.

So that, when we reach the last fifth of the book and step into Karamat's point of view, we have plenty to see. Once again, we're watching Aneeka from a distance, through someone else's eyes, and this particular perspective is a shrewd, calculating one. What might have been simple acts of grief gain a certain political heft because it is Karamat who, representing the State, watches Aneeka enact an opposition that cannot be anything but hostile to everything he is.

Novel though it is, a clash of thhe kind between Antigone and Creon, Aneeka and Karamat, cannot be conducted through actions only. Ideas are central to this battle and they needs words. Shamsie's dialogue through the book is sharp, quick and supple in its ability to be wry and witty and to cut when necessary.

Sadly, Aneeka and Karamat never talk in person. Shamsie outsources to Eamonn and Isma what Aneeka might have said to Karamat. And their words, though they find their mark, are softened by the characters they are. We never do find out what Aneeka's idea of justice actually is - beyond that the law and justice are not the same thing and that the UK must allow her to bring Parvaiz's body back to he can be buried with his mother.

This, really, is what makes Home Fire merely a very good book when it could have been great, even brilliant. 

Not ending on that note, however. It also occurs to me that though Aneeka may not have been the one to articulate all of the arguments in opposition to Karamat's stateist position, there is nothing inaccurate in the way Shamsie shows a more diverse, multi-directional critique of power.


I cannot help mentioning that I look for and invariably find a particular thing - I hesitate to call it a tic -  that Shamsie has in all of her novels. Some years ago, it would cause me to roll my eyes a little bit, but now I found myself recognising it here with a kind of affectionate amusement.

No, I am not going to tell you what it is.