Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is rooted in Sophocles’s Antigone. All five of its main characters are Muslim, yet each have a very different take on their faith, despite three of them growing up in the same family. It tackles issues of radicalisation and prejudice, showcasing characters trying to break free of what they feel are pre-determined narratives placed on them by other people. Given this is a book based on a play, the irony is deftly dealt, and the ending - oh, the ending - destroyed me.
Speaking of trying to escape narratives, When I Hit You: Or the Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy gives voice to a woman who has escaped an abusive marriage. It is a crushingly claustrophobic read, her husband destroying everything she owns, deleting all her online accounts until she can only exist through him. Her body, too, becomes his. As a writer, the narrator is appalled that she no longer controls the narrative of her own life, and by documenting her experiences she seeks to rebuild herself not just as a human, but as a body of text, reclaiming the words that were once ripped from her, permitting her to exist outside of herself.
Finally, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward takes us on a car journey with Jojo; he’s travelling with his mother and sister to collect his father from prison. These characters are haunted, literally sick with a past that’s heavy with racism and violence. They seek exorcism, in the same way Cynthia Bond’s Ruby did (shortlisted for this prize in 2016), both echoing Toni Morrison’s Beloved. At various points, all of these characters declare they’re coming home, but home for them is fluid, elusive; it’s pulled out from under them, while Jojo’s grandfather, River, shines his lighter on the porch ‘bright as a lighthouse.’
Home Fire, When I Hit You and Sing, Unburied, Sing, are all worthy winners in my eyes; I could even see Sight winning, too. If you made me choose, I’d go for When I Hit You, but ask me again tomorrow and I might say something else. I don’t envy the judges picking a winner, but I do thank them very much for highlighting such wonderful books.
Words by Jen Campbell. Images by Thom Corbishley.