What if those we love are ‘enemies of the state’? What if the laws of the land contradict the laws of our religion? These are the questions asked by Kamila Shamsie in Home Fire, winner of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Home Fire is a rewriting of Sophocles’ Antigone, in which the title character is forbidden to bury her dead brother, who has been declared a traitor by their uncle the king. Shamsie picks up the resulting conflict between loyalties to family, nation, and religion. In modern day Britain, Muslim Aneeka faces a decision when her twin brother travels to Syria to support the Islamic State. Their sister wants to report him, but Aneeka hopes that her friendship with the son of the home secretary might offer a different way out.
So, what if our ties to our family pull against our deepest convictions? Aneeka casts her particular dilemma as a clash between the law and justice:
In the stories of the wicked tyrants men and women are punished with exile, bodies are kept from their families – their heads impaled on spikes, their corpses thrown into unmarked graves. All these things happen according to the law, but not according to justice. I am here to ask for justice.
Aneeka’s statement suggests that the law does not always secure the demands of true justice. Christians might agree: whilst the UK justice system owes much to biblical values, in particular cases we may feel that they are in conflict.
Shamsie’s book is a reminder to Christians that we have two truths to balance. Romans 13:1 puts it like this: ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.’ We are to live peaceably and obey the laws of the land. Yet we are also to acknowledge that there is ultimately a higher power: ‘There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy’ (James 4:12).
These things can be difficult to hold together, and Shamsie’s book is a reflection of that. Its characters may be Muslim, and its basis may be in Ancient Greece, but its themes resonate as much for Christians as for any readers. Home Fire challenges both our conviction and our compassion, and – as the Women’s Prize judges put it – it’s a book that speaks for our times.
Rachel Helen Smith
Rachel works in marketing and attends King’s Church Durham.