If nothing else will continue to burn in the minds of her readers, the final page of Kamila Shamsie’s eighth book, Home Fire, certainly will. The leaping novel, Shamsie’s contemporary take on Sophocles’ Antigone, replaces the titular heroine with Aneeka, a young and beautiful Muslim woman living in London. Shamsie’s rendition maintains Antigone’s conflict with her family and the state, which, by a sort of metonymy, implies larger contemporary connotations of conflicts between Muslim populations and the Western nations that target those populations. The buried body of Polynices in Antigone is exchanged for that of Aneeka’s twin brother, Parvaiz, who left for Raqqa to join the media wing of ISIS, influenced by the memory of their father, a jihadi who died under suspicious circumstances en route to Guantánamo. The twins’ older sister, Isma, who had raised them and had gone to America to resume her life in academia, remains a pragmatic figure, as the story’s Ismene—compliant, non-radical, and conscientious—who watches the drama unfold from America through Skype, news stories, and social media. Since the name “Antigone” itself is born of an etymology that alludes to a child as the reiteration of their parents (“the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” essentially), the son of Shamsie’s Oedipus, Parvaiz, is drawn to the memory of his father—at times reluctantly, at times enthusiastically. The new life he chooses begins as a new past breathing life into a renewed future, but Parvaiz eventually becomes sickened by the violence he witnesses abroad. Ultimately, it is his death as he tries to flee to a British embassy in Turkey that serves as the loss that motivates Aneeka, the uncompromising radical, and it is his body that becomes politicized after its death, just as Polynices’s had been outside Thebes in Sophocles’ drama.
The tragedy of Home Fire relies on a romance between Eamonn (the conservative MP’s son) and Aneeka. Both the tragedy and the romance in their story presuppose grief as a kind of emotive fuel, so to speak: Aneeka mourns her twin, which forces Eamonn to lament their relationship’s demise, and it “resolves” in a catastrophically romantic act of requiting love that concludes a sort of tragic relationship arc. This, at least, is how this narrative would be interpreted as employing threadbare romance, but by reconceptualizing grief’s usual role in this narrative, Shamsie undoes this narrative and redefines it toward a political end. The narrative certainly is not cliché, though, once it reaches its reversal in the final pages—one of the most ambiguous, powerful, and heartbreaking endings imaginable.
Of course, the memorable final scene: Aneeka runs toward Eamonn, who has followed her to Pakistan to join her in burying Parvaiz, as Eamonn is bound by a group of men who know he is the son of a prominent conservative British parliament member. The scene is the epitome of dramatic tragedy, one that is one that outlines most clearly Shamsie’s rethinking of the political legibility of romance and grief. The scene resolves what had once been Aneeka’s ambivalence about Eamonn into a bold requital of love, yet simultaneous muddies it with an odd range of readings—a suicidal desire, a grief-driven longing for her twin, a knowledge of her publicity and an exteriorly imposed narrative that provide a political tool—all of which ultimately point to its framing. Shamsie is very clear to detach, as much as possible, this scene from the previous frame that the book provides and replaces it with another. The reader is explicitly told that this is framed by the TV, by a cameraman, and the scene begins with the fact that it is being observed from London by Lone, Eamonn’s staunch father, the MP, Shamsie’s beautifully conflicted Creon. No names are used, only anonymous identifiers like Eamonn’s blue shirt. The reader, then, is forced to interrogate the variety of frames through which Aneeka’s “whisper,” and Eamonn’s consenting kiss on her shoulder, could be interpreted—Lone’s political and personal frames, Isma’s frame, the physical framing of the TV screen, even the frame of Shamsie’s book itself. Seeing this display of frames calls into question, for a moment, an ethics of reading. These frames point to the fact that, even when Aneeka’s life and her grief for Parvaiz’s lost life become in some viral way “apprehensible” through these narrative tropes that the media produced for them, they inevitably face the problem of frames, of enforced interpretations. They also draw attention to the fact that the romantic trope that had been somewhat steady throughout the novel is undone by thinking outside its frame in this final scene.
If Shamsie is able to rescue grief from a site of affect that led Plato to ban it from his Republic, and resituates it in a social critique that focuses on legibility, what, then, is the role of grief in catharsis of tragic romance? Why is grief and grievability so operative in this final scene? Not only is grief something that is “universal,” or bound to the ontology of the body, but it is politically differential for those who survive to perform the grieving. Perhaps this is another reason theorists have suggested tragedy as the primal skeleton narrative of the nation. Thus, grief leads both forwards and backwards, and into the past, toward the differential violence that inflicts mourning, and into the future, toward the both the rageful subject who transmutes aggression into virtue, or the rageful subject who actively struggles against aggression. The simple fact that “we morn for some lives but respond with coldness to the loss of others” as Judith Butler put it, is the point through which this idea operates.
Whether lives are “knowable in their precariousness” is exactly what is at stake in Home Fire’s final scene. It is in the foregrounding of the surfaces of intelligibility that Kamila Shamsie’s work explores acknowledgment, recognition, and representability in our time as a fickle operation, and shows romance and tragedy as themselves contestable sites of representation. In doing so, perhaps most importantly, it makes headway in exposing frames of knowing—even its own.