Sunday 10 November 2019

Book club highlights on a chilly fall morning...

I’ve had laryngitis this past week, and one of the ways to cure it, according to my brief research online, is to avoid caffeine, so I’ve been drinking herbal tea these last four days. Because of this, my steaming cup of steeped chai is especially delicious this morning!  
I can’t wait to tell you about our discussion yesterday.  My Volunteer book group met to discuss Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie, and it was one of our best discussions yet.  We spoke about the book non-stop for a full hour, with no digressions - this never happens.  There were six of us at the meeting, and if three of us hadn’t had to leave at noon, we could have stayed and discussed it for another hour.  I have read this book before, so this is what I said about it in my blog post in June 2018: 
“It’s a shame that I’m lacking my usual blogging enthusiasm, because the book I read last week was truly amazing.  Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie, winner of the 2018 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, explores how the lure of terrorism is affecting Britain’s Muslim youth.  At the age of 28, Isma is finally free to pursue her dreams, after years of raising her twin brother and sister following the death of their grandmother and mother seven years before.  Isma is significantly older than the twins, and with a jihadist father whose life with the children was brief and sketchy at best and who died in uncertain circumstances on his way to Guantanamo many years earlier, Isma has shouldered the role of parent, supported by her extended family, Aunty Naseem and the cousins.  But now she is off to Amherst, Massachusetts to resume her PhD studies, where she meets Eamonn, son of the UK Home Secretary, Karamat Lone. She is clearly smitten with him, but he, unfortunately, only has eyes for her younger sister, Aneeka, with whom he takes up a relationship upon his return to London. Aneeka sees Eamonn as a conduit to reaching the Home Secretary in an effort to bring her brother back home.  Parvaiz has been lured by the recruitment arm of ISIS after learning more about his father’s life and mission before his death, and works for the media arm of the terrorist group in Istanbul, but he becomes disillusioned and wishes to return home to his family and his “real” life. As a member of ISIS, however, this is nearly impossible, and Aneeka does everything in her power to help, including manipulating Eamonn into approaching his father.  What follows is the heart-wrenching story of the effects of distorted religious faith in the hands of one family, and the far-reaching consequences and difficult decisions so many people are faced with because of the actions of one misguided youth. I read that this was a contemporary retelling of Sophocles’ play Antigone, about a teenage girl who must choose between obeying the law of the land, as represented by her family, and religious law.  I know nothing about this play, but when reading this short novel, it had the feeling of a play retold, although I didn’t know this for a fact until much later.  I sometimes find novels told from various points of view to be either confusing or repetitive, but this one, told from the points of view of Isma, Aneeka, Eamonn, Parvais and Karamat, was none of these things.  Rather, it flowed as though it was one story told by a succession of storytellers, each patiently waiting for their turn to share the next section of the tale. It was short, barely 275 pages, but Shamsie never made the narrative seem skimped or incomplete;  rather, it was told sparingly yet fully, with sufficient detail that I as the reader felt fully engaged. She may have been able to achieve this because the story is so very timely, and even the most politically illiterate of us (like me!) understands what is going on.  This novel had depth and emotional pull, and had me racing to the last page, which offered a satisfying, albeit tragic, conclusion. I would highly recommend this novel and will seek out others by this author (I think this is her seventh book).”
I agree with everything I wrote in this earlier post, and now that I took the time to look up the story of Antigone, the parallels are more evident and various aspects of the story become even more poignant.  We discussed this play (thankfully one member read it in high school and remembered enough of the story to fill in my meagre info!) in relation to the novel, as well as the almost incestuous relationship between Aneeka and Parvais. One member listened to this as an audiobook and, not knowing that she was near the end of the book, said that when the last line of the book was read, she was shocked and saddened for the rest of the day.  She said that it had such a small cast of characters, yet the book was huge. She also said “this book was chaos”, and we all understood exactly what she meant. Another member said that it really gave an inside view into how terrorists prey on and manipulate vulnerable people; Shamsie presented it in a way that would make even the most uncompromising reader understand and even sympathize. We agreed that this book was written in plain language, and felt like the author was speaking to us and telling us a story.  One member said that, since reading this book, she’s been having trouble finding something else to read that is as engaging. It is a brilliant book, one that I think I’m going to go out and purchase this afternoon, as it is one I need to read, reread, and study, maybe after I read Antigone.  It was a very successful discussion, and I would recommend this novel to any reader.  But be warned - it is not a happy book. In fact, there are no happy parts in it at all - well, some of the stories told and comments made by the Home Secretary are pretty amusing, but not enough to offset the sadness, the overwhelming tragedy, of the novel. 
On that cheerful note, I will end this post.  Get outside and enjoy the brisk, invigorating weather before it starts to rain (or snow!).
Bye for now…

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