Kamila Shamsie, writer extraordinaire, returns with a seventh, timely novel on what it means to be Muslim in the West today. When Khizr Khan claimed boldly last year that his wife and he were “patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to our country”, he was universally praised as a powerful voice speaking against divisive politics. But as pointed out by Sandip Roy (and a few others), the fact that Muslims are asked for their “undivided loyalty” should trouble rather than reassure us. Citizens of a complicated world, Shamsie’s latest book, now longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017, is for you.

Home Fire revolves around two families in London who have diametrically opposed views on how to wrestle with their Muslim identity. The members of one pray, cover their heads, are cautious, and distance themselves from radical elements. The other disowns the religion entirely, brands it regressive and misogynist, breaks old family ties, and assimilates with white, powerful people. But the two families, different as they are, have an old neighbourhood connection that is reignited as their grown-up children meet in a chance encounter.

How do a hijab-wearing woman and a proudly undevout man end up pitting cherries for jam on a terrace together? And how stable is that image? Is it possible in present day London? Shamsie has us guessing throughout the book – questioning both our scepticism and our hope in turbulent times.

City in character

The city of London is a central character in Home Fire. It’s a place where fortunes can capsize or ascend rapidly. It’s a place where immigrant communities huddle together when the sacrifice of culture required to assimilate is too much. It’s a place where when a woman in a salwar kameez sees another she rushes across the road and grabs her arm. It’s where Eid celebrations bring practising and non-practising Muslims together as family. It’s where a woman with a covered head can be spit on in underground trains. In cities called cosmopolitan and melting pots, are harmonious, inter-cultural relationships set to thrive or perish?

Isma has raised her siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, since they were 12 years old. Isma’s depth of love for the twins is as if they were her own children. But the twins form their own emotional enclosure which Isma cannot enter. Their childhood in North London is lived under the unspeakable shadow of their deceased, jihadist father. When asked by curious playmates about the mysterious figure from their past, the three siblings have each tailored their own response.

These different approaches to what family means ultimately separate the siblings in ways they cannot control. Laid down in chronological narrative, Shamsie seems to encourage us to ask what we would have done differently and to carefully question whether it would have made a difference.

Karamat Lone has married an Irish woman called Terry. He has named his son Eamonn instead of the Muslim name,Ayman. He has risen through the ranks of the British Parliament by stepping away from his Muslim roots. As a Muslim man in power, he feels compelled to appear strong on issues of immigration and security. When Eamonn strikes up a friendship with Isma and Aneeka, it brings his two necessarily separate worlds together.

M for Muslim

Early in his career, when the choice between family and religion, and political career and power is presented, Karamat chooses the latter. Home Fire puts the question to him a second time, this time in relation to his beloved and pampered son. What will Karamat choose? And what does it reveal about the pressures and the freedoms for Muslims today?

Unlike books that have come out of West Asia (and, occasionally, South Asia) for decades, depicting extremists as terrifying and unknowable, Home Fire shows the human naiveté that can draw a teenage boy to training camps in Syria. The right narrative, cleverly delivered, can convince a young person who isn’t too sure of themselves. They may not even know what they’re being asked to do. Promises of women, power, brotherhood and ideological clarity are used to lure young Muslims in the West. That these boys are targeted and groomed is often left out of the narrative. People are quick to disown them. Home Fire is an attempt to at least understand them.

Love and kindness

As a devoted reader of Shamsie’s books, I am charmed by the ways in which she returns (anew) to old impulses in every book. Whether it is Raheen and Karim in Kartography (2003) or Hiroko and Sajjad in Burnt Shadows (2009), Shamsie has always written about love in a deeply uncynical way. That love falters, hesitates or betrays is never in doubt. But Shamsie’s stories are determined to show how surmountable love can make every challenge seem. At the very moment we have written her lovers off, they return, hat in hand, to each other with kindness. It is a testament to Shamsie’s powers as a storyteller that we believe her.

Another old thread that returns in this novel is the value of human touch in South Asian communities. In Salt and Saffron (2000), Shamsie wrote a sentence I have never been able to forget:

“…more than monsoon rains, more than crabbing beneath a star-clustered sky, what I missed about Karachi was the intimacy of bodies.”

Isma has always comforted Aneeka by holding her when she is upset. But when she moves to the States for a PhD, they lose this crucial way of connecting with each other. Aneeka and Parvaiz synchronise their heartbeats. Their way of relating to one another is tied up in having bodies that mirror the other’s.

Home Fire is a book to lose ourselves in. I read Shamsie’s latest on a day encumbered with relatives and chatter, but I slipped into the book so completely I rarely heard them. The characters are vulnerable, flawed and determined. No one chooses to be helpless. They find their individual ways of confronting the odds stacked against them. This is one of the very best books of the year so far.

An excerpt from the novel

A man entered the office, carrying Isma’s passport, laptop and phone. She allowed herself to hope, but he sat down, gestured for her to do the same, and placed a voice recorder between them.

“Do you consider yourself British?” the man said.

“i am British.”

“But do you consider yourself British?”

“I’ve lived here all my life.’ She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.

The interrogation continued for nearly two hours. 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. after that early slip regarding her Britishness, she settled into the manner that she’d practised with Aneeka playing the role of the interrogating officer, Isma responding to her sister as though she was a customer of dubious political opinions whose business she didn’t want to lose by voicing strenuously opposing views but to whom she didn’t see the need to lie, either. (“When people talk about the enmity between Shias and Sunni it usually centres around some political imbalance of power, such as in Iraq or Syria – as a Brit, i don’t distinguish between one Muslim and another.” “Occupying other people’s territory generally causes more problems than it solves” – this served for both Iraq and Israel. “Killing civilians is sinful – that’s equally true if the manner of killing is a suicide bombing or aerial bombardments or drone strikes.” There were long intervals of silence between each answer and the next question as the man clicked keys on her laptop, examining her browser history. He knew that she was interested in the marital status of an actor from a popular TV series; that wearing a hijab didn’t stop her from buying expensive products to tame her frizzy hair; that she had searched for “how to make small talk with Americans”.

“You know you don’t have to be so compliant about everything,” Aneeka had said during the role-playing. Her sister, not quite nineteen, with her law-student brain, who knew everything about her rights and nothing about the fragility of her place in the world. “For instance, if they ask you about the Queen, just say, ‘as an Asian i have to admire her colour palette.’ It’s important to show at least a tiny bit of contempt for the whole process.”

Instead, Isma had responded, “I greatly admire Her Majesty’s commitment to her role.” But there had been comfort in hearing her sister’s alternative answers in her head, her Ha! of triumph when the official asked a question she’d anticipated and that Isma had dismissed, such as the Great British Bake Off one. Well, if they didn’t let her board this plane – or any one after this – she would go home to Aneeka, which is what half Isma’s heart knew it should do in any case.

How much of Aneeka’s heart wanted that was a hard question to answer – she’d been so adamant that Isma not change her plans for America, and whether this was selflessness or a wish to be left alone was something even Aneeka herself didn’t seem to know. A tiny flicker in Isma’s brain signalled a thought about Parvaiz that was trying to surface, before it was submerged by the strength of her refusal ever to think about him again.

Eventually, the door opened again and the woman official walked in. Perhaps she would be the one to ask the family questions – the ones most difficult to answer, the most fraught when she’d prepared with her sister.

“Sorry about that,” the woman said, unconvincingly. “Just had to wait for America to wake up and confirm some details about your student visa. All checked out. Here.” She handed a stiff rectangle of paper to Isma, with an air of magnanimity. It was the boarding pass for the plane she’d already missed.

Isma stood up, unsteady because of the pins and needles in her feet, which she’d been afraid to shake off in case she accidentally kicked the man across the desk from her. As she wheeled her luggage out she thanked the woman whose thumbprints were on her underwear, not allowing even a shade of sarcasm to enter her voice.

Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie, Bloomsbury India.