Review published on September 15, 2017.
The seventh novel by Pakistan-born London resident Kamila Shamsie, a former Granta Best of Young British novelist, feels particularly relevant to our world today. Perhaps more than the other Man Booker longlisted novels I’ve read so far, this feels especially for our times, with the most relevance to our modern lives. Strange then, that this is based upon one of the oldest recorded stories, the Greek myth of Antigone, most famously written as a tragic play by Sophocles in about 442 BC.
I’m not actually going to tell you more about the myth as it will give too much information as to where Shamsie’s plot-line will go. If you know it, you know it. If not, I don’t want to spoil things for you as developments certainly took me by surprise. It does involve a chilling attempt to stand up against the authorities. Shamsie has recast the main characters as a Muslim family from Wembley. Isma, the oldest daughter, begins the novel by travelling to the USA to commence a long-delayed Sociology PhD leaving her younger law student sister Aneeka at home and Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz removed from the family. Isma had been a mother figure to the twins after they were orphaned. We learn early on that their father had died whilst being transferred to Guantanamo Bay. Isma is attempting to pick up the pieces after family tragedies and the shame and distrust caused. She has a chance encounter with a family acquaintance, Eammon, son of a British Muslim politician whose career, after setbacks, is in the ascendancy. On Eamonn’s return to the UK, he offers to take a bag of M&M’s to Aneeka setting up a catalogue of events that will lead to tragedy and a startling international incident.
I read very few books as explicitly political as this and did find it difficult to hone in as to what my feelings were or the author’s stance on incidents. This is because the issues are extremely complex and involve the prejudices of nations, the power of religions and the media. Shamsie is certainly to be applauded for her bravery in tackling these themes head-on. The fact that she does it pitch-perfectly in a tale which is brilliantly realised, both unpredictable and chillingly inevitable borders on the extraordinary. I found it totally compelling to read but harder to always gauge my responses. Shamsie is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner that explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways. This feels like a very important novel for our times and yet has an age-old story as its framework. It has resonance and authority and is a five star read.
Phil Ramage 5/5
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