Monday 4 September 2017

Epigraph Philosophy - Smith Vs Shamsie

I love a good epigraph.

A well-chosen, thoughtful epigraph can establish the tone for the book journey you're about to embark on. However many authors spend a lot of time and effort on finding the perfect epigraph only for it to be skimmed over by most readers.

For the reader who does consider the epigraph, its true significance may not become apparent until the end of the book, by which time it has been long forgotten.

It's time to rectify this sad, sad wrong.
It's time to save the epigraph from obscurity!

Today I'm confused.
I'm not sure which Man Booker longlisted book I should jump into next. I thought I would check to see if their epigraphs might help me to decide one way or the other.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Two brown girls dream of being dancers - but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, black bodies and black music, what it means to belong, what it means to be free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten either.

Bursting with energy, rhythm and movement, Swing Time is Zadie Smith's most ambitious novel yet. It is a story about music and identity, race and class, those who follow the dance and those who lead it...

And Zadie Smith's epigraph is....

According to wikipedia, the Hausa are one of the largest, most homogeneous ethnic groups in Africa, primarily based in Nigeria. Many Hausa proverbs have two corresponding, but interrelated parts that display balance and cohesion in a poetic way.

When the music changes, so does the dance, tells us that we should adapt to what is coming our way. It's another way of saying we should 'go with the flow' and embrace where we are and what we're doing right now. It can also be claimed by those who wish to create change or reinvent themselves.

It also makes me think of Anthony Powell's series of books titled A Dance to The Music of Time.

Sounds promising doesn't it?

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The suspenseful and heartbreaking story of an immigrant family driven to pit love against loyalty, with devastating consequences 

Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she’s accepted an invitation from a mentor in America that allows her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half a globe away, Isma’s worst fears are confirmed.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Son of a powerful political figure, he has his own birthright to live up to—or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Suddenly, two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined, in this searing novel that asks: What sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

 Shamsie's epigraph is...
The ones we love...are enemies of the state -
Antigone, Sophocles  (translated by Seamus Heaney, 2004)

I studied Antigone at school, but sadly remember very little from it. Perhaps the most interesting part in this choice of epigraph is that it is actually a quote from Heaney's 2004 play, The Burial at Thebes, which is classified as a version of Sophocles' play.

Antigone's main themes were personal freedom versus civil disobedience, fidelity and love of family, natural law versus law and human error.

Whereas Heaney's play, according to Wikipedia has,

conflicts between individual freedom and the imposition of restrictions by state, as well as the conflict between Divine Law and Civil Law.
The play contains many digressions from the Greek original, Heaney adding Irish idiom and expanding the involvement of some characters such as the Guard. Relevant to the time of its writing, Heaney also adds in "Bushisms", referencing George W. Bush and his approach to leadership, drawing a parallel between him and the character of Creon.

Both books appear to cover big themes that have vexed the human condition since we began recording it.

Which one should I read next?


  1. I vote for Home Fire, as it has 5 stars at my library and Swing Time only has 3 ½. Best luck with whatever you choose, they both look interesting! :-)

    1. I hope to read both, but Home Fire sounds the most promising I agree.


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