Kamila Shamsie’s novel is filled with perfect coincidences
Of all the coffee joints frequented by all the British citizens-of-Pakistani-descent in all of Amherst, Massachusetts, she walks into his?
In Amherst, Massachusetts, a British woman—the daughter of a dead jihadist—meets the son of a British-Pakistani politician who colluded in her father’s death. The son is charming in a halfhearted Oxbridge way; she is clever, brittle, and guarded. Most of all, she is a reminder of home. She falls for him. He falls for her younger sister. Neither sister quite gets around to telling him that their other sibling, a brother, has joined ISIS.
Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie’s seventh novel is, in its way, a retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone. But in its (intentional) melodrama and its pileup of perfect coincidences, it more closely resembles a classic Hollywood film. The plot machinery ramps up so quickly that you don’t have time to doubt it. It makes perfect, dreamlike sense that all this would happen at just the moment when the politician-father gets promoted to home secretary. Only when it’s over do you pause to ask a few questions. Of all the coffee joints frequented by all the British citizens of Pakistani descent in all of Amherst, Massachusetts, she walks into his?
It’s fair, I think, to take the plot’s mechanics as self-conscious artifice: we are being told a story, and Shamsie sees no reason to deny the fact. Less forgivable, to me, is the novel’s often slack and unconvincing style. Characters speak to each other in the kinds of well-tuned self-summarizing speeches that people never actually use except, perhaps, in a therapist’s office or during a particularly strenuous blind date. They constantly prompt each other to fill in details that the reader (but not the character speaking) needs to know. They are forever gazing at the photo that reminds them of the backstory that can only lead, with fatal inevitability, to the paragraph-long exposition dump.