Long since abandoned by their terrorist father, three siblings have been left completely alone by the sudden death of their mother. Isma, the eldest, has managed to raise her twin sister and brother, who are now nineteen.
As the novel opens, Isma is flying to Boston, having accepted a scholarship in America. She worries about leaving her siblings in London, and fears for her sister especially. "With her law student brain," Aneeka knows "everything about her rights and nothing about the fragility of her place in the world."
That fragility is amply demonstrated in an early scene when Isma politely thanks an immigration official at Heathrow "whose thumbprints were on her underwear" and whose long interrogation has caused her to miss her plane. Exercising the utmost self-control, she expresses her gratitude without "allowing even a shade of sarcasm to enter her voice."
Another family of Pakistani origin has fared better and integrated well. Home Secretary Karamit Lone has a wealthy and well-connected designer wife, a daughter, and a son called Eamonn. His mother is of Irish descent, but in the Pakistani community, Eamonn's father is assumed to have used an "Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name--'Ayman' became 'Eamonn' so that people would know the father had integrated."
These two families share some bad history, and when they connect by chance, conflict is inevitable. Interestingly, the conflicts faced by the 'integrated' politician and his wife and son are no less complex and vexing than those faced by the children fathered by a jihadi who are probably still watched by MI5. All these characters are forced into hypersensitive awareness of various tribal loyalties and disloyalties.
The tightrope-walking over identity and belief is seen in small and large ways. When Isma wears a turban rather than a scarf to cover her hair, British strangers ask her "whether it is a style thing or a Muslim thing." Americans tend to ask whether she's undergoing chemotherapy.
"Cancer or Islam--which is the greater affliction?" jokes Eamonn. Then he apologizes, saying "it must be really difficult to be Muslim in the world these days." To which Isma responds that she would find it "more difficult not to be Muslim."
In the US, Isma finds a certain relief in thinking about "how much more pleasant life was when you lived among foreigners whose subtexts you couldn't hear." Eamonn, however, is from London, and she picks up the meaning behind his polite social code loud and clear.
Back in London, the politician's son Eamonn crosses the street to avoid a mosque. Then, thinking about his father, he crosses back, "so as not to be seen trying to avoid a mosque." He reflects how people talk of "the racism his father has to face when a section of the press tried to brand him as an extremist, but it was London's Muslim population who had turned their back on Karamat Lone and voted him out, despite all the good he'd done for his constituents." The son attributes this rejection to the fact that his father "spoke of the need for British Muslims to lift themselves out of the Dark Ages if they wanted the nation to treat them with respect."
Again and again the novel portrays the obsessive concern of the characters about the gaze of others -- their determined zeal to control how others perceive them.The recruiter Farooq irons his underpants and employs the "faux-Arabicized accent of a non-Arab Muslim who is trying too hard." He knows exactly how to speak and behave to Parvaiz in order to harvest the trust and confidence of the young man without a father figure.
Sadly, Parvaiz, "the terrorist son of a terrorist father" sees through the mask of the recruiter too late. By the time he realizes he's been sucked in, he no longer knows "how to break out of these currents of history, how to shake free of the demons" he has "attached to his own heels." One strategy involves hiring a PR company to advise him on what to say and what to wear to minimize his trouble.
Trapped in the ISIS camp, Parvaiz observes that it is "impossible here to know who was a true believer and who was playing along for any of a host of reasons, from terror to avarice. The price of letting your mask slip" is "far too high for anyone to risk it."
Shamsie was born in Pakistan and educated in the US. A British-Pakistani dual citizen, she lives mostly in London. She characterizzes this tale as a contemporary working of Antigone, an ancient Greek tragedy. Like her protagonist, Shamsie is an academic; indeed, Isma studies in Amherst, Massachusetts, also an alma mater of the author. Kamila Shamsie's work has been critically acclaimed and widely translated. This book was long-listed for the Man Booker Award.