There’s a stack of recent-reads on the bookshelf in my bedroom. It’s tall and unsteady and I have to be careful not to knock it over when on summer nights I open the window. Over the next couple of weeks, these books will be distributed to other shelves in other rooms or to friends with an urgent nod—you must read this. My small suburban home has bookshelves in every room, this is my childhood dream come true: a house full of books. My parents were Sicilian migrants, they worked long hours in factories to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. The only book they owned was a small prayer book Nonna gave my mother on the wharf in Messina the day she left for Australia. My parents were not readers but for me, reading is as essential as breathing.
Essential and political. The first time I was conscious of reading as a political act it was the late 1970s, and I was an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne. Frustrated with the domination of works by white male writers (the only women novelists we studied were Austen and Eliot), I dropped English Literature at the end of second year, opting instead for majors in Politics and Geography. For the next few years, I devoured books by women writers … Morrison, Angelou, Atwood, de Beauvoir, Woolf, Lessing, Garner… strong literary and feminist novels that challenged my thinking; they were my companions as I struggled through my turbulent twenties. These writers taught me how to write when finally, twenty years later, I became brave enough to begin telling my own stories. Reading, like writing, is a political act; we make a decision each time we pick up a book about which stories and which voices are worth our time and attention. When we listen to a diversity of stories, we expand our sense of who we are as a community and a people.
Two novels stand out in my stack of recent reads. The first novel is Home Fire by Pakistani-British novelist Kamila Shamsie. It is her seventh book and it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018. The second novel, The Glad Shout by Australian author Alice Robinson is due to be released in March this year (I have been lucky enough to read an advanced copy).
Like all my favourite novels, Home Fire and The Glad Shout are political; not novels about politicians and governments but novels that deal with the crucial issues of our time, contemporary crises that seem insurmountable: misogyny, racism, climate change, terrorism, war and its consequences. They explore the emotional and psychological impact of catastrophic events on individuals and families, and the damaging consequences of fixed ideologies. They are novels concerned with what it means to be human, to love and to be loved in a world that is often antagonistic.
‘The ones we love…are enemies of the state’ Home Fire’s epigraph, from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sophocles, Antigone, highlights the dilemma central to the novel—the conflicting of loyalties to family and to the state. The Pasha family are British citizens and Muslims. Isma, the oldest sister, has cared for her younger siblings, twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz since their mother died when they were twelve. Their father, reported to be a terrorist and a jihadist, was killed on his way to Guantanamo.
Home Fire juxtaposes London’s cultural diversity with the increasing paranoia that positions all Muslims as suspicious, potential terrorists with their sights set on western targets. This is evident from the opening section when Isma is detained for hours at the airport:
‘Do you consider yourself British?’
‘I am British.’
‘But do you consider yourself British?’
‘I’ve lived here all my life.’
She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.
As Isma begins her new life in America and Aneeka focuses on her legal studies, Parvaiz who is still haunted by his father’s death is recruited into Isis and agrees to go to Syria to train and fight for the Islamic state. By the time he realises he has made a mistake, it’s too late. When the British government won’t let the family bring Parvaiz’s body home, Aneeka goes to Karachi to fight for ‘justice’ for her brother. She is soon followed by her lover Eammon, the son of a British Minister, Karamat. Karamat, the first Muslim Home Secretary, is left to make the ultimate choice between family and state.
Shamsie forces us to see the world from the point of view of the Muslim characters, a perspective that’s rarely given a voice. The characters in this novel are not all likeable. You might have empathy with Isma or Aneeka but the male characters, especially Karamat, are more difficult to empathise with. The novel’s power is in creating this discomfort, positioning the reader as a witness to the impossible choices some people have to make. This is a brave novel. It’s also captivating, I was swept up in its world, in the lives of its characters.
The Glad Shout, like Alice Robinson’s first novel, Anchor Point, is concerned with climate change but this is no political treatise. While climate change and its impact is central, there are several other important narratives that underpin the novel including the relationship between the main protagonist Isobel and her mother, Isobel’s ideas about motherhood and her own mothering of young Matilda, and the challenges of being a refugee holding on to hope of finding a safe haven.
The novel has two narrative strands, the first is set in the present after a catastrophic storm destroys much of Melbourne. Isobel, along with her husband and young child, have been forced to take refuge in a camp set up in a large stadium. Food supplies are limited and there are very few options for relocating the refugees. Places like Tasmania that haven’t been as badly affected are at capacity and are unwilling to take the homeless Melburnians. When Shaun goes out with a scouting group and doesn’t return, Isobel has to decide what risks she’s willing to take to save her daughter and herself.
The second narrative strand (and alternating chapters) begins when Isobel is two years old and her parents split up. The focus is on her relationship with her mother, Luna, and her brother, Josh, and Isobel’s attempts to secure their love. Luna is a single mother on a mission to build a career and financial security for her children. Motherhood and mothering is a struggle and Isobel is increasingly critical:
Isobel wants nothing more than to slide back down into her bed, close her eyes, and pull the sheet up over her head. She wants Luna to cradle her, like she must have done when she was a little baby. What she wants in this moment, then, is some other mother. Luna has always been the opposite of whatever springs to mind when Isobel conjures the word mother. That word stands for a feeling, as love does – an impression and not a cohesive thought, much closer to emotion than to something that can be dissected with the mathematics of language. Although none of this comes from her own direct experience of being Luna’s child, for Isobel, mother is a natural thing, grounded to the point of being almost geological, unfailingly enduring. By contrast, Luna seems to float above the ground, a firefly, insubstantial and dazzling, giving the impression that she might combust and disappear.
As Isobel grows up she begins to notice the devastating effects of climate change. Water becomes scarce, especially in the rural areas, and her Nonno, like many others, has to give up his farm and move to the city. Unemployment is rising, food supplies are diminishing, and the weather is more erratic. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that many, including Luna, are ignoring the warning signs.
Isobel is a character we can relate to, an ordinary Australian woman, who is now homeless and a refugee. The Glad Shout forces us to consider the seriousness of climate change and what its actual impact might be on our lives and the lives of the people we love. Robinson challenges our sense of Australia as safe and secure, and demands we pay attention to the changes happening around us.
Robinson’s writing is poetic and moving especially in the sections on motherhood. Isobel’s love for her own mother is intertwined with anger and disappointment, but now a mother herself she understands the complexity of the relationship between a mother and child. She loves Matilda, but she also feels trapped. The Glad Shout is a courageous and unsentimental portrayal of motherhood, and a riveting narrative of the struggle for survival.
Like the best political novels, Home Fire and The Glad Shout are not didactic, they don’t proselytize. Shamsie and Robinson are talented storytellers. Both novels are confronting and often uncomfortable to read, but also exhilarating and gripping. Weeks after I have finished reading The Glad Shout, I am still thinking about Melbourne, a city devastated by climate change, about Isobel and Matilda, homeless but hopeful and prepared to risk everything to find a home and a future. And about Home Fire’s Isma, Aneeka and Parvaria, caught between their British and Muslim identities, between their loyalties to each other, to their religion and their country, and the impossibility of reconciling these conflicting positions. I am also thinking and rethinking about the issues they raised, about race and identity, about our treatment of refugees and our willingness to ignore climate change warnings. These novels don’t offer any answers (I don’t think that’s fiction’s role). Instead, they hold up a mirror to our contemporary world, they throw our privilege and our compliance into the spotlight, and by doing so challenge our values and behaviours, and raise important questions we all need to consider.
Enza Gandolfo is the author of two novels, The Bridge and Swimming (shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Award). She is an Honorary Professor in Creative Writing at Victoria University.