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Monday 27 May 2019

Review: Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire

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I still buy books in shops. I like to browse and I try to buy books I haven’t heard of - in contrast, if I go to Amazon it is to buy a book I already know about. At the end of my last visit to a shop (Oxford Blackwell’s) I left with six books, including this one.

As a result, I now have a new rule about buying in shops: avoid books with multiple product endorsements. This one has over thirty. I really don’t understand why.

There is always a danger in trying to write fictions based on current newspaper or TV preoccupations. The fiction can end up being read as simply a non-fiction contribution to the ongoing debate: Should we let young people who went off to join ISIS return to the UK when they change their minds or - more commonly - when ISIS loses the fight it has picked? I am going to guess that that is how some reviewers have read this book and some book groups have discussed it.

Novelists might claim that they concretise the question to individuals, make us see the human side of such questions, but insofar as those individuals are characters in a novel they are not real characters in life but imagined ones and imagined ones ought not (as a general rule) count for  much in real political debate. There are exceptions of which Scrooge is the all time stand-out case of a literary character you can legitimately deploy in real-world debate, treating the character's name as a shorthand for an argument or a gesture towards an area of common understanding. But from the fact that Miss Havisham does not lend itself so easily, one can begin to see that the traffic from novel to life is not so great as that between  life and the novel or would-be novel.

Imagined characters can be flat or rounded, caricatures or fleshed out, cardboard or something more solid. In my reading, Shamsie’s characters don’t quite make it across the line to become really interesting. Especially at the beginning, I was bored by their flatness. I began to say to myself “Potemkin village”.

They do improve but the characters then suffer the fate of being moved around in a plot which comes across as increasingly contrived and which ends up cynical: the ending seems designed for a crass Hollywood film even though the novelist gives her story cover as a re-working of Antigone. Again, I found myself saying “Potemkin village” which is for me partly a way of questioning whether the author’s heart is really in the work or whether the novel is something which has been knocked up for reasons which are not particularly heartfelt but more designed to impress - the Potemkin village is precisely a theatre scenery facade designed to impress the world but behind which there is nothing substantial.

The book has its moments - characters are given some good lines, including funny ones; the  bad guy, Home Secretary Karamat, ends up as a fairly multi-dimensional character; jihadi Parvaiz has an interest in the world of sound around him which is developed in a thoughtful way. But then again, when Kamsie seeks to shift gear from plain narration to heightened narration, the prose and the imagery becomes overwrought.

I would like to have Liked this book; it’s more fun writing positive than negative reviews - and a mistake made in a browse-purchase inevitably makes you think about the book you didn’t buy.

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