Reviewed by Sophie Karolczak firstname.lastname@example.org
Antigone for the Modern Era: a Review of Home Fire
Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire adapts Sophocles’ Antigone to the modern era, brilliantly merging themes from the ancient text with modern issues through the lens of Muslim identity in the United Kingdom. Three themes important in Antigone include the importance of those in power listening to others, what should be viewed as a crime, and how the dead should be treated. Shamsie also brings in a new theme, namely the meaning of citizenship and its fragility for certain groups of people. Antigone takes place in a time of war and in Home Fire that war is the war on I.S.I.S. As we know, Muslim families with no connection whatsoever to I.S.I.S. have been treated horribly in countries like the U.K. and U.S., and this novel also addresses that.
Shamsie engages with Antigone at both a surface level and through its deeper themes. However, even if the reader has no knowledge of the book’s classical roots, Home Fire is an excellent story. One obvious correlation is the naming of the characters. For example, Ismene becomes Isma, Haimon is changed to Eamonn, and so on. Shamsie spends much more time than Sophocles on character development, which is partially a reflection of the medium. Antigone was a play, and focused on a much smaller window of time. Shamsie uses her novel format to tell a story leading up to the events mirroring Antigone and gives readers a view into the motivations inspiring each character. In Antigone, conversation between characters is an important vehicle for the story to progress. Many of the events are not happening in real time, rather they are being described to someone. Shamsie stays loyal to this, with the final events of the story unraveling on international television. This is reminiscent of the Messenger describing events to Creon.
In Home Fire, we are first introduced to Isma, who represents Ismene. She has just moved from London to the U.S. for grad school. Like her classical counterpart, she is very thoughtful and cautious, always concerned about her and her family’s reputation. Aneeka, the younger sister, represents Antigone. She is beautiful, opinionated, stubborn, and deeply loyal to her twin brother, Parvaiz. Parvaiz represents Polyneices, one of the two brothers in Antigone and is presented as a more complicated character than in Antigone. We don’t meet him until the end of the book, but he is introduced as the twin of Aneeka who had decided to follow in the footsteps of his father by joining the media arm of I.S.I.S. He was manipulated into his role and decides he wants to leave, but by then it’s too late. Because of this, in a way he represents both brothers in Antigone. Isma, Aneeka, and Parvaiz’s father represents Oedipus. Their father died before this story began, but it is explained that he had been a jihadist and died in a plane crash on the way to Guantanamo Bay.
The other family involved in Home Fire is the Lone family. Eamonn Lone represents Haimon, the son of Creon, and is originally introduced as a friend and possible romantic interest of Isma. However, he sees a picture of Aneeka and is immediately infatuated. They start a relationship, as in Antigone, and his fate becomes tied to Aneeka and Parvaiz. Eamonn’s father, Karamat Lone, represents Creon. He is an M.P. who has risen to power by refuting his Muslim identity. He is as stubborn as his classical counterpart and this ends up costing him everything. Karamat’s wife, Terry Lone, represents Teiresias. Her conversations with her husband toward the end of the novel reflect many of the same sentiments as those between Creon and Teiresius at the end of Antigone. She calls Creon out on his stubbornness and convinces him to change his mind in the end, but it is too late.
Shamsie makes a few key alterations that differ from Antigone. One is having the character equivalent of Teiresius be Terry Lone, Karamat’s wife. This alteration makes more sense in the context of the modern story, since prophets aren’t generally wandering around giving advice nowadays. The change also gives a female character more power than one might see in the ancient world. Another alteration is the removal of one of the two brothers. There is no obvious equivalent of Eteocles in Home Fire. Shamsie seems to have made this choice to have more time to tell Parvaiz’s story, which adds depth to his character definitely not seen in Antigone. Rather than having a ‘good’ brother and a ‘bad brother’, we have just one brother who is multidimensional and capable of both good and bad. One last alteration is that in Antigone, Antigone is the older sister, whereas in Home Fire Aneeka is significantly younger. I think this change reflects sentiments today about youth being extreme and at times irrational. Isma plays the role of the more mature, though at times jealous, older sister.
The part of Home Fire that most closely resembles Antigone takes place during the last part of the book. While trying to get home, Parvaiz is killed, and his body is supposed to be buried in Pakistan by order of Karamat Lone, but Aneeka is determined to have it brought back to London. Eamonn and Karamat have an argument that is a modernized version of the argument between Haimon and Creon. Eamonn is pleading for Karamat to see a different perspective, and Karamat is accusing Eamonn trying to help Aneeka only because she seduced him.
Home Fire combines two parts of Antigone into one: the burial of the brother as well as the imprisonment and eventual death of Antigone. Aneeka’s British passport had been confiscated so she is stuck outside of Britain. This is a more modern form of imprisoning her away from home, and Karamat has no intention of allowing her to return. Isma shows up to Karamat’s house, demanding to travel to be with her sister in Pakistan, reflecting the change of heart by Ismene in Antigone. While Isma and Karamat are talking, Karamat learns his son has traveled to Pakistan as well. Karamat and Terry have a conversation that finally convinces him to try to fix his mistakes, just like the conversation between Creon and Teiresius. The choice to make Teiresius’ analogous character the wife of Karamat reflects the changing views of a woman’s roles in marriage. In classical times, wives had little chance of changing a husband’s mind using logic.
At the end of the book, Karamat, Terry, and their daughter Emily are told that there is an imminent attack on their family, and they hide. When they’re released they learn what has occured on television. Eamonn shows up to support Aneeka, but unbeknownst to him, terrorists had strapped a belt of explosives on him. Aneeka runs towards him and the book ends in them embracing. It is apparent both will die, but not explicitly stated, unlike in Antigone where the two are found dead together. The way the family learns what has occured is similar to how everything is revealed at the end of Antigone. Creon finally has a change of heart and intends to help, but it is too late and his son is dead.
While overall I would consider Home Fire to be a successful adaptation of Antigone, some aspects of the ancient text may be less relevant to modern readers, forcing Shamsie to shift the message slightly. For example, proper burial is not a theme many are grappling with in literature today. The idea of a corpse being dropped off in a park enshrouded in ice is a bit hard to imagine, but the fact that this scene was described as international news helps to defend its absurdity. Another common trait of ancient literature is misogyny. In Antigone, Antigone is the title character, yet she barely speaks in the play and the other female characters in the play are very one dimensional. Home Fire also struggles with this. Shamsie was limited here as she tried to closely adapt a classical text, but the characters of Isma and Aneeka, while certainly more complex than their classical counterparts, were also quite one-dimensional, with only one emotion dictating their actions at a time. Meanwhile, much more complexity was introduced into the characters of Eamonn and Karamat. This book is definitely intended for a more mature audience, with vivid depictions of death, violence, and sex.
Other reviews of Home Fire have been overwhelmingly positive. Dwight Garner of the New York Times describes the adaptation as “[playing] freely with Sophocles’ drama but [hewing] to its themes”. The Guardian’s Natalie Haynes praised the novel’s ability to connect the ancient with the modern, writing “it is a powerful exploration of the class between society, family, and faith in the modern world, while tipping its hat to the same dilemma in the ancient one”. One of the few complaints, voiced by NPR’s Michael Schaub, was that Parvaiz’s radicalization happened very quickly, and wasn’t explained as fully as Schaub would have hoped. I do agree with this, however we did get to learn significantly more about Parvaiz than we did about Polyneices in Antigone.
If readers of Home Fire are interested in other adaptations of Antigone, they are in luck! Several creators have reworked Antigone for the modern era, including Jean Anouilh and Sophie Deraspe. Jean Anouilh, a french playwright, adapted Antigone to reflect the Nazi occupation and French resistance during World War II. She was the original one who switched the birth order of Ismene and Antigone. Sophie Deraspe, a Canadian filmmaker, created a film adaptation of Antigone that takes place in Montreal. This film brings in themes of police violence and also connects to citizenship like Home Fire.
Garner, Dwight. “In ‘Home Fire,’ Lives Touched by Immigration, Jihad and Family Love.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Aug. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/08/08/books/review-home-fire-kamila-shamsie.html.
Haynes, Natalie. “Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie Review – a Contemporary Reworking of Sophocles.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 Aug. 2017, www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/10/home-fire-kamila-shamsie-review.
Heeney, Alex. “Sophie Deraspe on Her Modern Adaptation of Antigone.” Seventh Row, 11 Dec. 2019, www.seventh-row.com/2019/12/11/antigone-sophie-deraspe/
Schaub, Michael. “’Home Fire’ Puts A Topical Spin On Ancient Greek Tragedy.” NPR, NPR, 15 Aug. 2017, www.npr.org/2017/08/15/542468885/home-fire-puts-a-topical-spin-on-ancient-greek-tragedy.
Shamsie, Kamila. Home Fire. Thorndike Press, 2018.