Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

‘You know what fathers and sons are like.’

‘Not really, no.’

‘They’re our guides into manhood, for starters […] We want to be like them; we want to be better than them. We want to be the only people in the world who are allowed to be better than them.’

Home Fire begins from the perspective of one of the women. Isma is about to miss her flight to America where she has a place to do a PhD in sociology at Amherst. She’s been detained by immigration in the UK who search and interrogate her. ‘He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.’ Eventually she’s allowed to leave but not before she’s missed her flight.

Eventually Isma arrives in Massachusetts where she meets Eamonn Lone, son of the British politician Karamat Lone. Isma recognises Eamonn. When she was younger there was a photograph of the local cricket team in the house of a family friend. Karamat Lone was on it. Isma overheard her grandmother telling someone of the cruelty he’d shown their family when he could’ve acted otherwise. However, Isma doesn’t reveal to Eamonn that she knows who he is and a relationship begins to develop between them.

Isma’s family situation is complicated. Her mother and grandmother died within a year, leaving her to parent her twelve-year-old twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. Aneeka is at home in London, attending college. Parvaiz has left, occasionally letting Aneeka know via Skype messages that he’s okay.

Shamsie intertwines the two families in order to explore relationships, love and loyalty. Through the range of characters, she creates a complex view of what it means to be a Muslim, exploring different perspectives within Muslim communities. This is at its most stark with Karamat Lone and Aneeka. Lone is known as Lone Wolf due to his championing by the tabloids who see him ‘as a lone crusader taking on the backwardness of British Muslims’. Not long after his appointment as Home Secretary, he returns to the secondary school he attended in Bradford to give a speech.

‘You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you. But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours. And look at all you miss out on because of it.’

Aneeka wears the hijab, prays and is teetotal. She’s also about to enter Lone’s life and have a profound effect.

Home Fire is a retelling of the Greek tragedy Antigone. While a number of recent retellings of Greek and Shakespearean plays have fallen short, Shamsie pulls this one off with aplomb. The novel uses the key themes and follows the structure of the source play but its characters, settings and ideas are contemporary and highly relevant. As the story moves from character to character – Isma, Eamonn, Parvaiz, Anneka, Karamat – the sense of urgency builds. Home Fire is a compelling, tightly crafted novel; I read it in one sitting.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.

The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal

‘There’s a trick to time […] You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or longer,’ he says.

The Trick to Time begins in the present day in a southern seaside town. Mona, nearing 60, runs a shop from which she paints, dresses and sells collectible dolls. Before the end of the first chapter it becomes clear that some of these dolls serve a particular purpose. A woman arrives with a carefully wrapped parcel; she’s grieving:

‘I’ll tell you what, let me give you this.’ Mona takes a business card from the counter and writes her address on the back. ‘That’s me. Shall we say next Wednesday at 4.00 p.m.? Would that suit you?’ The woman nods and Mona smiles. ‘I just need the weight.’

The woman’s voice is a whisper when she speaks. ‘Five pounds seven ounces,’ she says and looks around as though she’s told a secret.

The dolls Mona paints and dresses are made by a local carpenter. She collects them from his workshop every few days. Their conversations suggest they have a working relationship but Mona’s observations show she worries about him too. He lives alone in the workshop and is haphazard at taking care of himself.

Alongside the now, de Waal contracts time and tells the story of Mona’s youth and young adulthood. In these sections of the novel we see her grow up in a small Irish town, raised by her father after her mum dies of cancer. In 1972, she leaves for Birmingham and meets William who, after a short courtship, she marries.

The Trick to Time considers the impact events that happen when we are younger have on our lives as we get older; how our desires and youthful optimism can be eroded, and how we can either weave these events into a new version of life or allow them to dominate it. This is exemplified by two of the minor characters, Karl and Bridie, as well as Mona.

Karl, who Mona spots looking out of his flat window at 5 a.m., is grief stricken after his friend Andreas’ death. Mona begins dating him after they bump into each other in a café; he becomes a catalyst for change in her.

Bridie lives in the village near Mona and her father. They visit her every month.

‘Why doesn’t she visit us instead?’ asks Mona. She is fourteen.

‘Good question,’ her father replies as though he’d never thought of it before.

‘At least then I could do some mending or shell the peas while she has the clock stopped.’

Her father laughs and squeezes her arm in close. ‘Ah, she’s a conjuror all right is Bridie O’Connor. I’ve never known a longer hour. But.’

And his ‘but’ says everything. Mona knows the words that come after. But she’s family, sort of, and she loves you. But she’s lonely. But she lives alone. But it’s the right thing to do. But we have to think of more people than ourselves alone. But have a heart, Mona.

In her debut novel My Name Is Leon, de Waal examined the difficulties of working class, single motherhood and the care system for children of colour with diligence and without descending into sentimentality. In The Trick to Time she applies the same focus to grief, compelling the reader to invest in these characters and their lives, taking us to the dark places which have shaped who they’ve become. There are points where the novel is difficult to read but it isn’t without hope; sometimes the control of time is ours.

Thanks to Viking for the review copy.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2018

Here it is, the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 longlist. Initial thoughts are that I’m very excited. This is a great list. Two of my favourite books of last year are there – When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy and Elmet by Fiona Mozley – and one of my favourites so far this year – Sight by Jessie Greengrass. One of my all-time favourite writers, Nicola Barker, makes the longlist for the first time with her twelfth novel H(A)PPY. I haven’t read it yet because I’ve been wanting time to sit and savour it, which never happens, so I’m delighted to have to make that time now. The book and writer I hadn’t heard of is Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig. I love that this list always produces at least one new to me writer. The other thing that’s really pleasing is that seven of the sixteen writers are women of colour, by far the highest number we’ve ever seen from this prize and about time too.

Here’s the list in full. I’ve linked to my reviews of the four I’ve already covered and will return to this page to link the rest as I work my way through the rest of the list.

H(A)PPY – Nicola Barker

The Idiot – Elif Batuman

Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon

Miss Burma – Charmaine Craig

Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gower

Sight – Jessie Greengrass

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

Elmet – Fiona Mozley

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

A Boy in Winter – Rachel Seiffert

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward