September 14, 2017 § 3 Comments
This is a hard book to review. I wanted to love it but I have some significant issues. In a sense, this is a timely reworking of Antigone.This novel considers present-day issues of state power, borders, and terrorism. The ideas are worth thinking about but I feel the depth of the novel is less a feature of its writing, structure, characters, and plot, and more about what present-day readers will bring to their reading of the book. It’s the fact that it’s about our current political and social issues and the fact that it’s based on Antigone. I’ve seen reviews where people say they would have given it two stars, but knowing that it was based on Antigone elevated the book to three stars. I’m not sure that this reflects well on the novel.
Some of my issues: (SPOILERS AHEAD)
Antigone as the novel’s symbolic framework is also its limitation. I have a significant problem with the romance and the blockbuster film ending, and I can see it had to work that way to fit the parameters of the tragedy on which it’s based. But it simply did not feel true. This is largely in part to the flimsiness of the central characters of Aneeka (Antigone) and Eamonn (Haemon). Aneeka comes off as a cardboard character of a moody girl who’s mysterious in her ways and beautiful and unpredictable and impulsive, while Eamonn is a shell of supposed charm and humour and earnest do-gooder privilege. So far, so stereotypical. Much of the gravitas of Antigone is lost because Aneeka is not given the depth of a narrative voice. We see her through others. To Eamonn, she appears as some Manic Pixie Muslim Dream Girl. Their sudden passion and attraction does not leap off the pages. Maybe part of this is because Aneeka had a motive for getting closer to Eamonn, and Shamsie wanted to convey the “is it real or is it not” ambivalence of the romance. Or whatever. I did not care at all and that to me is a significant flaw. I was rolling my eyes and writing “Oh, please” in the margins. The wheels of this story is set in motion by their love. It felt like a weird, coldly-choreographed infatuation.
There is this really cringe-worthy scene after they have sex, when Eamonn looks at Aneeka praying after she has naughtily taken off everything for him except her hijab. Eamonn is the cultured, cosmopolitan posh Muslim boy who has, thanks to how he was raised, disavowed his Muslim self, but as it turns out what really turns him on is hijab sex with a hot hijabi! This is the section from his perspective: “He should have left immediately, but he couldn’t help watching this woman, this stranger, prostrating herself to God in the room where she had been down on her knees for a very different purpose just hours earlier”. Oooh. First she was down on her knees for dirty times and now she’s down on her knees for God! Honestly, I thought this self-Orientalising nonsense was Shamsie’s way of poking fun at Eamonn’s privileged worldview and insularity, but Eamonn is only depicted in such a tediously dull way as a Good Man that it turns out that scene was quite sincere.
Isma (Ismene) and Karamat (Creon), and even Parvaiz (Polyneices) to an extent, are complex and dynamic. Isma is the heart of the story but she is made to have a supporting role, because this novel needs to construct itself around the Antigone tragedy. The connection between Isma and Karamat could have developed into something interesting but that was prevented because, again, Antigone. I’d rather read a whole novel about Isma and Karamat. But Aneeka? Repeated references to her beauty does not a character make.
Despite enjoying the sections on Isma and Karamat, and feeling moved by Parvaiz’s situation, or rather, by the burden of family and fate that he feels he shoulders in isolation, I failed to connect to the novel as whole. Ultimately, it’s too comfortably bourgeois, too careful and too centrist in its politics. Shamsie’s language is polished and careful. Sometimes this language is a delight to read; it slips down easily and comfortingly like pudding, but sometimes it veers lazily towards sentimental platitude. Not having read Shamsie before, I’m not sure if this is her style. I know what the politics were going to be and I know that it’s meant to pull the right emotional strings. It’s meant to make you feel bad about good, innocent Muslims vs. the very evil and bad ones.This is not because I know what happens in Sophocles’ tragedy. This is because there is nothing remotely unpredictable in here that I haven’t read in zillions of liberal op-eds and thinkpieces.
Where is the ugliness, the blood, the mess, the absolute and mind-numbing fear and uncertainty brought on by the bureaucracy of borders and the security state? These characters move around like pieces on a chessboard. I can accept this if the novel was brave enough to take fate as a serious concept like the ancients did. Because part of that utter futility of human effort is at the centre of ancient Greek thought and in Sophocles’ play. The terror and awe of Antigone’s commitment to the gods and the concept of philia. But we live in a different time and we’re all materialists now even if we’re not, and this novel wants to be a realist novel of action, of cause and effect, and everything is so self-contained.
Aneeka’s love for Parvaiz and her willingness to do anything to get him buried at home is utterly unreasonable to others because she’s one half of twins. Great. So it basically comes down to: she’s acting that way because, well, twins! You know how they are!
What about Aneeka’s God and how she wrestles with religion in modern-day, increasingly right-wing UK where the only way “others” are told they should exist is by assimilating? We get a strong, almost sympathetic depiction of that conservative viewpoint via Karamat. In fact, his perspective closes the book. He gets the final word, even if it’s meant to be a representation of his hubris before his personal fall. But there is no real, strong political opposition to his view by other Isma or Aneeka. Isma’s critique of both the police state and Islamophobia carries more weight than Aneeka’s sense of justice. There is never that confrontation between Aneeka and Karamat that enables readers to think of another way of how the state should exist, of a way that it can protect and yes, care for its citizens without trying to eradicate difference in people by means of weapons, war, incarceration, poverty, torture, and weaponised security.
And if this is Antigone, then it’s Aneeka’s impassioned arguments that should strike the heart of the reader. But we only get inside her head at the worst point of her grief, and her viewpoint is submerged in the “chorus” of newspaper reports, tweets, etc. I don’t understand why this section was done this way. It doesn’t work as a structural choice, it doesn’t work as a stylistic choice. Thus, instead of the argument between Karamat and a worthy foe of opposing political views, we are meant to make do with sentimental claptrap about Karamat having to be a father and pleas for him to “be human” from both his wife and son. Really? Both Islamic State fighters and war-mongering NATO politicians think they have the monopoly on what it means to be human, don’t they?
I thought Shamsie was going to take a risk in the Parvaiz section, which I found moving until it was again clinically-engineered by the hand of the author. After giving us an engaging, even sympathetic Parvaiz, I thought Shamsie was going to show us how unreasonable we are in our desires, how mad we can become when faced with a family legacy that is riven with trauma, in a world that is brutal and unjust. That after getting the reader to sympathise with Parvaiz, she would leave him there, with the choice he made, thereby making the reader flail in the uncomfortable space of finding themselves sympathising with a terrorist. Or not sympathising, as such, but living in his head and seeing the world from his eyes. But no. Very quickly Parvaiz repents, and enters the world of good humans again. The dichotomy of Muslims terrorists as monsters and the rest of us as good humans remains. This is straight out of Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, but not in a good way. In fact, it is just like any depiction of “Muslim terrorists” we see in the media. But fiction is not corporate-sponsored journalism. One hopes that if you’re going to write about this, you would take the risk of humanising the people that the media have Othered and made monstrous. Because that is the black hole of our collective consciousness, isn’t it? How is it that people, actual humans, vast numbers of them, think that so many of us are not fit to exist on this planet with them? Shamsie does this by taking an ethical shortcut. Parvaiz regrets his choices; hence, we are allowed to feel pain that he is denied humanity in his death.
Daniel Mendelsohn on Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Antigone’s relevance: “This is the point that obsessed Sophocles’ Antigone: that to not bury her brother, to not treat the war criminal like a human being, would ultimately have been to forfeit her own humanity. This is why it was worth dying for.” There is none of this terrifying, heart-rending power of sticking to a principle, of ethics, conveyed in Aneeka’s position. This to me would have been the most crucial aspect of the novel, the element that should have been carefully developed, the bright flame at its core. I searched for it and was left wanting.
To me, all of this suggests that the reader is meant to fill in the gaps in Shamsie’s book by connecting it to the long, rich history of interpretations and readings of Antigone. Instead of fleshing out a key character in the novel and the mechanics of its plot, we are meant to assume Aneeka’s actions are powerful and tragic based on what we know about the tragedy. Such a shame. There are seeds in here for a novel that could have been really messy, brave, and complex. I was expecting so much! I still think it’s worth reading, despite my lengthy criticism, but it’s not memorable and it did not shake me up inside, it did not take my thinking to new places. It’s worth reading because it’s topical and relevant. But it could have been so much more.