Three Straightforward Reviews

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire is loosely based on Sophocles’s play Antigone, its basic plot transplanted to contemporary life for British Muslims. The story is narrated from 5 POVs, 3 of them are the Pasha siblings: elder sister Isma, and twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. Isma raised the twins following their parents’ death. Their father left a legacy of disappearing to fight the jihadi cause. At the start of the novel, Isma has arrived in the USA to pursue higher learning and Aneeka has begun university. Parvaiz, adrift and feeling left out, was easily persuaded to follow in his father’s footsteps and join ISIS. In the aftermath, the Pasha sisters became connected to a father-and-son duo (the 2 remaining POVs): Karamat Lone – UK’s Home Secretary – and his son, Eamonn.

Home Fire is a short novel, too short to do its plot points and interesting ideas justice. As characters, the twins were underdeveloped. Aneeka is a loose cannon, making one reckless and unreasonable move after another. Parvaiz’s story could be an entire novel on its own, but we only got 2 chapters: one on ISIS indoctrination and a very brief sketch of life as an ISIS recruit. Which was a shame. The topic is fertile source material, but because Parvaiz’s plotline was so rushed, I didn’t feel any sympathy; I just thought he was stupid.

I am OVER the mythologizing of twins in fiction: it’s beginning to be used to explain away illogical decisions. Aneeka deeply grieved for Parvaiz and created a dramatic spectacle because of…. special twin connection. No, not convincing enough. 

It was a relief to get to Isma and Karamat Lone’s POVs. In another book, Isma would have been a dull character – responsible and homely. But she was a refreshing contrast to Aneeka, Parvaiz, and Eamonn’s navel-gazing. Karamat Lone, as a rightwing British politician of Muslim heritage, was unbending and flawed. His POV was the most energetic and compelling of the 5.

What I did enjoy about Home Fire was its commentary on the weight of expectations and gender roles. Boys struggle with the burden of expectations: how do they match, let alone surpass, their fathers? How do they become their own men without disappointing their fathers? Eamonn’s and Parvaiz’s POVs played with this in different ways. Girls, meanwhile, struggle to carve out a path for themselves. They are burdened with lack of expectations (and subsequently, lack of resources). If there are default expectations for women, it’s for them to support family and community. The needs of others often leave them unfocused, and almost too willing to sacrifice their hopes and dreams, as seen in Isma’s POV.

If anyone knows of other novels that portray this theme well, I’d love to hear your recommendations!

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Read and reviewed as part of my Classics Club Challenge

A very short collection, this book comprises 6 stories and totals only 120+ pages. The word “Rashomon” would most likely conjure to mind the famous film directed by Akira Kurosawa, which I have not had the pleasure of viewing. To be honest, all of Kurosawa’s films seem interesting, but I have only watched Throne of Blood, a Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It isn’t my favorite Macbeth film adaptation, but Throne of Blood was directed in such a way that renders its scenes both refined (to the point of severe – which I think is meant to align with Japanese aesthetics) and lush. Its climax scene for the Macbeth character was also very striking.

Anyway, back to books – my days as a movie buff is long behind me. A fellow book blogger once told me that Rashomon the Kurosawa film was adapted from two of Akutagawa’s short stories: “In a Grove” and “Rashomon”. Reading this collection, it made sense. They were the best stories curated here. Akutagawa’s writing style has a very modern edge despite having been written in the early 1900s. His voice is deeply cynical; all 6 stories in this collection are bleak, almost nihilistic.

“Rashomon” is a punchy and concise story about a lowly retainer in old dilapidated Kyoto who has fallen on hard times and is contemplating survival. Akutagawa, in the span of 10 pages, mocked everything he could: noble ideals, the retainer himself, and even the idea of fellow man.

Pervasive bleakness permeated every story and had the unfortunate effect of making the collection monotonous. “Kesa and Morita” is an unwelcome entry as it explored a very similar idea against the more famous “In a Grove”. In both stories, multiple characters recount an event from their perspectives. Each telling was so different from the others and so self-serving that it was clear all the storytellers (and by indictment, all of humanity) were lying to save their skin or for self-interested purposes.

Final story “The Dragon” provided a bit of relief. Tonally it isn’t as hopeless and is more comedic. The voice of its Buddhist-priest narrator is perfectly whiny and pompous.

The relentless lack of faith in humanity in Rashomon and Other Stories made it a surprisingly dull read. There was no light to cut through the darkness. The lack of nuance frustrated and bored me.

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps by Michel Faber

This is one of Michel Faber’s earliest works, and while he has made a name for himself in the literary world, no one really talks about this novella anymore. I can see why. A week after I finished reading, I struggled to recall its plot for this review. Certain phrases felt show-offy, like Faber was trying hard to make an impression on you.

However, it was fun, enjoyable, and funny: a quick, refreshing gulp of a read. There were self-aware and deprecating jokes of the Gothic aplenty. The prose was excellent; it led you on nimbly and never dragged. And while certain phrases felt too try-hard, others were successfully witty and clever.

Our heroine Sian is part of an archeological dig at Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire, England. She’s a woman with a past and is harboring secrets. In Whitby, she’s haunted by routine nightmares of beheading. Then she meets a handsome man who offers her a centuries-old murder mystery in a bottle. Throughout all this, Whitby Abbey is always in the background.

(LOL, somewhere a Victorian lit professor is looking at these tropes and thinking, “tick, tick, and tick.”)

So yes, The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps is a Gothic mystery/romance. It’s tightly plotted and tightly written. Faber covers his story quickly to keep it readable and compelling, but keeps his pace controlled enough so that it never moves too fast or stops being enjoyable.

I think the ending is divisive. There were a few loose threads, ignored or left incomplete – and some would complain that the conclusion sputters: the novella promised lots of melodrama but did not deliver. Instead, it stops with a subdued, bittersweet, and slightly aimless closure. I like it though. The obvious ending would have been too unrealistic for me.

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps was first published in 2001. It’s told from a woman’s perspective but was written by a man. In our current zeitgeist, publishers would be wary of launching fiction like this. There are pros and cons associated with that, right? Hopefully writers and publishers would treat women-centered stories more responsibly and sensitively. At the same time, it would be a shame to see writers not taking risks.

Did Faber succeed in writing a believable woman narrator? A few thoughts skewed too teenage girl, but others were convincing and funny and authentic. I think Faber has a strong eye for detail regarding feminine habits, which makes me excited for the last book by him that is still unread on my bookshelf: The Crimson Petal and the White. Why haven’t I gotten to it? Oh, it’s 860+ pages. Although I suppose a door-stopper novel is perfect for these social-distancing times.

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