Classic Spotlight: Antigone in Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

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DISCLAIMER: I’ll try to keep this spoiler-free when it comes to Home Fire, though if you’ve read Antigone I guess you are sort of spoilt anyway. XD


I finished Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie yesterday, and it goes without saying that I really loved it. I love the story itself, but I also loved that it’s a modern retelling of the myth of Antigone, or more accurately Sophocles’ tragedy of the same name. While you can definitely read it on its own, I think the book is even better if you have read Antigone. It was interesting to see how Home Fire uses the plot and ideas from Antigone, and makes them into a completely new story.

Let me start with Antigone. The play takes place in Thebes, and it tells the story of Oedipus’ children. Oedipus’ family line is, in lack of a better word, cursed, because his father Laius had a son despite the fact that the gods have forbidden it. This led to the well-known story of Oedipus unknowingly killing his father and marrying his mother. Oedipus leaves behind two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Polyneices and Eteocles end up fighting for the throne, and kill each other in battle. That’s when their uncle, Creon, becomes the new king and decides to give Eteocles a proper burial, since he fought on the side of Thebes, but leave Polyneices to rot because he fought against Thebes. That’s when the play starts, and Antigone decides to bury her brother despite the orders of her uncle.

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Frederic Leighton, “Antigone

The main theme of Antigone is the opposition between the law, and doing what is right. Antigone goes against the law, but she claims that she’s following a more important law, the one of the gods, who want all people to be given a proper burial. She’s also loyal to her brother more than to any law of the state. The play also poses the question: if the law is unjust, should people break it?

In Home Fire, the story is more complex than that. The novel follows two sisters and a brother who are Muslims living in London. It deals with prejudice, religious fanaticism and family. And it also deals with laws and politics. The novel’s Creon in Karamat Lone, also known as “Lone Wolf”. Karamat Lone is the British Home Secretary, and on his way to the top he turned his back on his own people, and his own traditions. Well, in a way. Karamat Lone wanted to do the right thing, to help Muslims in Britain have better opportunities in life. But in his desire to make things better, Karamat takes a very strict, unyielding path. He calls for integration, but he doesn’t leave room for keeping the traditions. Once a fighter for equality and racial tolerance, he’s now a conservative in his own way. It’s especially interesting to see his point of view, when he realises that the ones attacking him are the people he thought were like him.

“…if someone had said he’d be the home secretary in a safe room while men prowled outside trying to kill him, he’d have known without asking that the men were neo-Nazi skinheads. But how dare they – how dare it be his people? After everything his generation did to make this country better for them, how dare they.”

Now what did the Creon of Home Fire do? Karamat Lone also decided to let the body of a young man rot, the body of Home Fire‘s Polynices – Parvais. Why? Because Parvais was a jihadi. And of course, Karamat is appalled by this, and he sees him as the main reason why Muslims are experiencing so much hatred. Which is a completely justified point of view. What he fails to realise is that the strict laws that are made to protect people from terrorism can sometimes create terrorists.

This is another instance in Home Fire when things are not that simple. Parvais’s father was a jihadi, and he and his sisters, Isma and Aneeka, barely know him. All they know is that he made their lives very hard. But when Farook, a friend of his father, comes into Parvais’ life, he paints him a completely different picture of the man he barely knew. He speaks of the torture Parvais’ father went though, and the great ideals he had. Parvais is aware that Muslims are treated with suspicion and prejudice, which is why he’s easily manipulated and leaves with Farook for Pakistan. It’s interesting how Shamsie in her own way uses the theme of the “cursed” family, in this case the son of a jihadi who becomes a jihadi himself. The media immediately treats Parvais’ case as “we should have seen it coming” and “of course he followed the footsteps of his father”. I also think that the press plays the role of the Choir in Greek tragedies, as it gives commentary and explains some events to the reader.

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Sébastien Norblin, “Antigone and Polyneices

Isma and Aneeka, Parvais’ sisters, reflect the characters of Ismene and Antigone. Isma doesn’t want to disobey the laws. She wants to live her life, and to make sure her siblings have a good future, too. She is the eldest child, Aneeka and Parvais are twins, and she took care of them after their mother died. Isma despises her father, and is aware that he’s to blame for the suffering and even the death of their mother. What he did causes her a lot of shame. Aneeka, on the other hand, has no opinion of her father. She was too young to see how much her mother had changed because of his actions, just as Parvais was, but unlike her brother, she never wanted to know more about him. She simply believes they are better off without him.

In Antigone, Ismene doesn’t want to have anything to do with Antigone’s plan, and she tries to persuade her sister not to anger Creon. Her character is much like Isma’s, but Isma gets much more attention that Ismene, and is a wonderful, kind character. Aneeka is very similar to Antigone. She’s bold, unyielding, and stubborn. She puts her loyalty to her brother first, loyalty to family before the loyalty to state.

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Antigone and Ismene

Home Fire has its own Haemon, too. Haemon is Antigone’s fiancée and Creon’s son, and Eamonn Lone is Karamat’s son. Both Haemon and Eamonn show the emotional side of their apparently emotionless fathers. I won’t reveal too much, but they share a similar destiny, and also show similar characteristics. I love how all of the characters follow not only a similar story, but they also have similar personalities to those in Antigone. While Haemon is just a side character in Antigone, Eamonn gets his own chapters and his point of view, which is very interesting because he’s a person of Muslim background, but was not raised as a Muslim, and he sees himself only as British. He’s even rejected by the British Muslims.

“Eamonn, that was his name. How they’d laughed in Wembley when the newspaper article accompanying the family picture revealed this detail, an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name – Ayman became Eamonn so that people would know the father had integrated.”

Nationality, and what it means to be a citizen of a country is also a prominent theme in Home Fire, which is a very topic, especially today, when so many people are moving abroad. The novel offers different sides to the story. While in Antigone the reader/audience is supposed to be on her side, everything is much more complicated in Home Fire. Aneeka’s love for her brother and desire to save him is understandable, but so are the feelings of people who oppose her. As her cousin from Pakistan puts it:

“Did you or your brother stop to think about those of us with passports that look like toilet paper to the rest of the world, who spend our whole lives being so careful we don’t give anyone a reason to reject our visa applications. Don’t stand next to this guy, don’t follow that guy on Twitter, don’t download that Noam Chomsky book. And then first your brother uses us as a cover to join some psycho killers, and then your government thinks this country can be a dumping ground for its unwanted corpses and your family just expects us to jump up and organise a funeral for this week’s face of terrorism.”

But besides all these political and social issues, Home Fire manages to be emotional, too. The later chapters are especially well-written and poetic. So, I’ll end this post with a wonderful paragraph on grief and rage, and once again say that I highly recommend this book to everyone.

“This was not grief. It was rage. It was his rage, the boy who allowed himself every emotion but rage, so it was the unfamiliar part of him, that was all he was allowing her now, it was all she had left of him. She held it to her breast, she fed it, she stroked its mane, she whispered love to it under the starless sky, and sharpened her teeth on its gleaming claws.”


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