Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire

Kamila Shamsie´s seventh novel, Home Fire, published in 2017, is a story of two families, the Pashas and the Lones. The families have their origins in Pakistan, but have moved to London, England. From the neighborhoods of Preston Road, Wembley starts their lives and disperse to different directions from the Parliament of Britain to America, Syria, Turkey and Pakistan. The families do not seem to have much in common except their origins, but inevitably their lives become more and more intertwined.

The focus on the story lies on the sisters of the Pashas, who have been on their own since a sudden death of their mother and a disappearance of father, who evidently has been radicalized and joined the terrorist organization ISIS. The eldest daughter Isma is a mother figure for the younger twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. Their lives are about to turn upside down when Isma follows her dreams to America and the twins, although young adults already, are left alone. Especially Parvaiz faces new challenges as a strange man enters his world, and his current views on life are questioned.

Shamsie, herself as of Pakistan origin and gaining a British citizenship in 2013, writes an extraordinary fascinating and gripping story. She does not fear of digging into challenging themes such as double citizenship, religion, (radicalization/secularization), moral and ethical choices between political and personal lives.

The book is divided into 5 parts, where the story is told from different points of view, of different persons. We found this a successful way of the storyline, and stories were balanced – with the exception of the story by Aneeka, whose story was told in a different format, in many parts like the news from the yellow press. It was an interesting choice by the author, as this way the story criticizes the power of media and shows how the reality/real facts can be twisted into something else and to serve other purposes. Kamila Shamsie has told in an interview that she drew inspiration for her writing from the ancient playwright Sophocles and his drama Antigone. Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, was prohibited by law from burying her brother. The Greek tragedy is inevitably in this modern version not any lighter in its’ nature.

Kamila Shamsie’s book was the first book to start the season of our book club, where we have chosen to read books that have won literal prizes or been nominated for a one. Home Fire won the Women’s prize of fiction for 2018 (A Prize that has been rewarded since 1996 for a book that has been published in Britain the previous year). The name of the book takes a reference from the concept of first World War, when there was a command to ”keep the home fires burning” while Europe was at the stage of a turmoil. Home was considered a stable place where routines would stay and which would provide the necessities for daily life. In Shamsie’s piece of work, the notion of ”home” as a stable place is being challenged, thoroughly. She also manages to surprise the reader in a way that one is shaken to the core. Highly recommended book for anyone who wants to enjoy a high-quality piece of world literature.


Photo: librarything.com

John Fante: The Brotherhood of the Grape

”Fante was my god”, says Charles Bukowski on the cover of John Fante´s novel The Brotherhood of the Grape. John Fante (1909-1983) was an American novelist, short story writer and screenwriter. He is known to be one of the first writers to portray the tough times faced by many writers in Los Angeles, often referred to as ”the quintessential L.A. novelist” (as mentioned in Wikipedia article). He is best known for his semiautobiograhical work Ask the Dust (published in 1939), which was directed into a film almost 50 years later (by Robert Town). The book we chose to read in the book club was the work of his later production, the Brotherhood of the Grape, his fifth novel, was published in 1977.

The story is set in a small American town and follows the lives of an Italian-American family. We come to learn that the core family of the protagonist Henry Molise is an extraordinary one: he is informed – once again – that his mother wants to get divorce from his husband. ”I´m so tired”, she moaned. ”Oh. Blessed Lord, deliver me from this cross. I just can´t take it anymore. Fifty-one years I´ve done my best, and now I´ve run out of patience. I want out. I want some peace in my old age.” This excerpt sets the main mood for the story, which is easy and effortless to follow. We really want to know what happens to Henry, as he sets for a trip to his childhood landscape and memories, now as he is in his fifties and gets involved with the troubled life of his old dad.

Sarcasm, black humour, the life as a 2nd class citizen, American Italian families and the importance of food were some of the themes that came up in our literal discussion of the book. The majority of us did enjoy the absurdities of the scenes, and did not bother to be too annoyed by some scenes that were even somewhat rancid. Maybe the story line was nothing too special, but as one us remarked, that sometimes a good writing is not so much about the plot in itself but the craft of the storytelling.

Despite his apparent fame amongst American literature, John Fante was mostly an unknown name for the book clubbers. Fante undoubtedly has paved the way for the writings of Bukowski (as mentioned in the introduction) and  Fante has been cited as a precursor for Beat writers. The dark and somewhat twisted humour might also be of interest to those who like the style of Louis-Ferninand Celine, for example. It might also be interesting to continue the reading to the works of Dan Fante, the son of John Fante.


Photo: librarything.com

Keri Hulme: The Bone People (1984)

The Bone People won the Booker Prize in 1985 and for its own part, raised the awareness of the existence of Maori culture outside the borders of New Zealand. Furthermore, a film called Once were warriors made a worldwide breakthrough in the 1990’s and brought even more social awareness to this minority that has suffered from the lack of basic human rights for ages.

Maoris are indigenous people of the island of New Zealand. It is known that first maoris of the island arrived to the island by long canoes from Polynesia around the 14th Century. As the Europeans started to conquer the island through Colonialism, Maorian tribes were mistreated and the population of the maoris started to decrease. The cultural resurrection of the Maori heritage started to occur at some point in the 1960´s. E.g. the language of Maori people has been legalized and brought to the curriculum of the country´s schools relatively recently, in the 1980’s.

Keri Hulme participates in this process of revival through the contents of the book. She weaves the story  in her magical way by introducing Maori words along the journey. The arrangement and relationship between her three main characters could be seen to reflect the past of the Maori tribes. The struggle of the existence has been an ongoing and fierce battle.

It is difficult to write about this book, as the story does not follow the conventional storyline and is in some ways “out of this world”.  The lives of the three characters are presented in fragmented ways, but which get their meanings in relation to each other. A woman, a man and a child have their own struggles to fight with, yet the caring and loving emotions seem to be evolving. The connection of this three is unique and biased. Isolation is a big theme, and violent actions occur. It is not always easy for the reader to accept the actions and their consequences.

A relation to the nature can be sensed in the book, and some symbols for Maorian culture is presented, such as the importance of art works & tattooes, and the respect to the past and magical stories. Keri Hulme made an important work through her writing, although the story would have not suffered from some further editing or simplification, in my opinion. One of our bookclubbers considered this to be the most outstanding book she has read for a while.


Cover (Finnish version): Kirjasampo.fi