James Mcnamara

A clash of loyalties

Kamila Shamsie’s brilliant reworking of Sophocles sees the shocking drama unfold against a background of jihad

If someone was to lob the name Antigone about, many of us would smile and nod while trying to remember if this is the one about the guy who shagged his mum or the parent who offed their kids. (Bit of both.) For those whose Sophocles is hazy, let me summarise. After a civil war in Thebes that sees two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, dead, the new king Creon rules that Eteocles is to be buried with honour, while Polyneices will be left outside the city gates to rot. Their sisters, Ismene and Antigone, have different views. Ismene — concerned that their social position is a bit shaky, given a family history of incest and rebellion — obeys Creon. Antigone, who thinks Creon’s decree offends natural and divine law, says whatever the Ancient Greek is for ‘sod that’, then buries her brother. Creon responds by burying Antigone alive, which sets off a chain of events that sees everyone he loves die.


I remind you of this because it’s relevant to one of the best novels of the year. Kamila Shamsie’s magnificent Home Fire retells Antigone as the story of two British-Pakistani families, divided over a rebel brother’s fate. Drawing on the play’s messy moral conflicts — between family and country, love and duty, divine justice and man-made law — Shamsie crafts a multifaceted tragedy about cultural tensions and radicalisation in modern London. Isma (Ismene) and Aneeka (Antigone) are Wembley sisters living with the fear and stain of their father’s jihadi past, something rekindled when their brother, Parvaiz (Polyneices), joins Isis in Syria.

Meanwhile, Karamat (Creon) is the first British-Pakistani to become home secretary. Via Karamat’s charming, loafer son Eamonn (Haemon) — who befriends Isma, then falls for Aneeka — the families are drawn together as Aneeka seeks relentlessly to bring her brother home, to help him ‘shake free of the demons he had attached to his own heels’.

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