Isma was going to miss her flight. The ticket wouldn’t be refunded because the airline took no responsibility for passengers who arrived at the airport three hours ahead of the departure time and were escorted to an interrogation room. She had expected the interrogation, but not the hours of waiting that would precede it, nor that it would feel so humiliating to have the contents of her suitcase inspected. She’d made sure not to pack anything that would invite comment or questions—no Quran, no family pictures, no books on her area of academic interest—but, even so, the officer took hold of every item of Isma’s clothing and ran it between her thumb and fingers, not so much searching for hidden pockets as judging the quality of the material. Finally she reached for the designer-label down jacket Isma had folded over a chair back when she entered, and held it up, one hand pinching each shoulder.
“This isn’t yours,” she said, and Isma was sure she didn’t mean because it’s at least a size too large but rather it’s too nice for someone like you.
“I used to work at a dry-cleaning shop. The woman who brought this in said she didn’t want it when we couldn’t get rid of the stain.” She pointed to the grease mark on the pocket.
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.
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 practiced with Aneeka playing the role of the interrogating officer, Isma responding to her sister as though she were a customer of dubious political opinions whose business Isma 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 centers 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.”
Shamsie re-tells the classic Antigone by Sophocles and transports this timeless tale into the modern world of terrorism, Isis and the clash between religion, family and law.
This novel is split into five sections, each following a different narrative, yet they are all connected by one man who is absent from the story. Isma is the elder sister of twins Aneeka and Parvaiz who follows her dream of studying in America after a series of family tragedies. However, the twins’ lives diverge with the impending absence of their sister and it is the ramifications of the legacy of their father that is the driving force for the plot.
This topical novel covers themes such as betrayal, family, fear, love, loyalty, politics and ultimately terrorism and prejudice. Shamsie’s skills as a writing ensures that this is not another story on terrorism, instead this is the backdrop of a very human issue: how do you deal with loss? This is what I loved about this book, how human the characters are and how you become engrossed in their journey and emotions. Aneeka is a powerful woman who will do anything for her brother, Isma is trying to take on the parental role and be objective, whilst Parvaiz is searching for a purpose and identity. These are elements every reader can relate to.
The third person narrative creates a detachment from the characters that makes the reader feel both uncomfortable and engaged with their stories. As I was reading, I felt like I both wanted more from the characters’ stories, whilst wanting to hide under a table and not admit that I was working my way through this novel. There was something both intriguing and off-putting in this narrative, with Shamsie skillfully intertwining these elements to make the story unforgettable. It lives with you for days, weeks, months, after you’ve finished.
Aneeka is a powerful heroine whom I disliked at first, I found her selfish and manipulative, yet as the novel progressed I understood her devotion to her brother and her need to help him. I enjoyed the sibling dynamic between the twins and Isma, the older sister. I found it intriguing that Aneeka refuses to forgive Isma but never considers her brother’s actions as a betrayal of the family. Aneeka is a character that you feel for, yet it was Isma that I wanted to know more about by the end of the novel; it was Isma who left me questioning and who, ultimately, gained my ultimate sympathy.
This novel was a story that I would never usually read, yet I am so glad that I have discovered the powerful writings of Kamila Shamsie. This is a provocative novel that makes the reader consider what they would do when their religion, family and culture clash.