Kamia Shamsie’s last fictional outing Home Fire was a politically prescient novel which deservingly won the 2019 Women’s Prize. It was a modern reimagining of Sophocles’s play Antigone, in the context of the lives of British Muslims.
Like most of her books, her latest novel, Best Friends, features Shamsie’s favourite cities, Karachi and London, and the lives of Anglo-Pakistani families. In a nutshell, and not surprisingly, given the title, this is the story of a lifelong friendship.
In the opening of the book set in Karachi circa 1988, we meet Zahra and Maryam as teenage girls who are already the “best of friends”. Maryam belongs to an affluent family and dreams of taking over the family business, Khan’s Leather. She has the self assuredness that comes from entitlement and privilege, knowing that she will be successful and will walk through life imperious.
Zahra, on the other hand, is upper middle-class but with a more humble family background. Her father is a celebrity of sorts, a popular cricket television anchor who provokes the ire of the ruling military dictator, General Zia, after refusing to thank him on his TV show for convincing Imran Khan to come out of retirement. Zahra is diligent and focused, with an implicit knowledge that in contrast to her friend, she will have to toe the line if she wants to make it big in life.
The better half
Their class difference is the subtext to their friendships – not alluded to often but always lurking beneath the surface. In moments of contention, this is the first thing they throw in each other’s faces.
Shamsie underlines the class disparity between the two friends with a touch of wry humor. Zahra quickly learns not to attach “either honorifics or familial relations” to the names of the house staff who work for Maryam family, such as their cook or driver. Once, when she does it out of habit, Maryam is appalled, remarking, he’s not related to us, with “class positions overriding deference between generations.”
The first half of the book reads like a layered YA novel, with Shamsie excelling at the depiction of these two girls on the cusp of womanhood. They are acutely aware that their place in society is shifting as are the gaze of the men surrounding them, as they grow up.
“In Karachi, men stared if you were a girl; it was something to which she was accustomed and shared with every other girl in the city. In London, people looked through you. The contrast was disquieting.”, Maryam observes.
This novel peaks during the part where it is set in Karachi because of Shamsie’s well-honed craft of bringing Karachi alive with her prose. I genuinely believe that there are not many writers who can write about Karachi better than Shamsie whose books are steeped in her abiding love for this chaotic city. She conjures the vibrancy and volatility that has always been the hallmark of Karachi with panache. During 1988, the city was on the verge of change with the muggy tyranny of military dictatorship being replaced by the heady optimism of a woman PM, Benzair, being elected for office.
The flawed half
A pivotal incident of teenage rebellion changes the girls’ trajectory in life and then we skip to 2019 when both protagonists are now living in London, unbelievably successful in their respective domains. Zahra Ali is now the director of the Center for Civil Liberties and Maryam Khan is a thriving venture capitalist funding ethically dubious facial-tagging technologies. The roles that these two women occupy in professional life allows Shamsie the space to comment on hot button socio political topics but this is often done at the expense of the story.
Your perception of the uneven second half hinges on how much you believe the conceit that leads to them leaving Karachi. For me, it was not convincing enough, which made the second half cluttered with happenstance and contrived plot lines. In the second half, the writer seems eager to raise awareness on immigration related political issues, often without nuance.
This comes off as jarring, especially since the first half is executed with near-perfection. It is exquisitely internal and character-driven – focusing on how the two main leads were affected and transformed by formative events in the history of Pakistan like Zia’s death and Benazir becoming PM. The second half, in contrast, is hyper focused on touching upon a bunch of contemporary political and racial issues, connected only by a semblance of a plot line.
The apex of the plot comes at a cricket match event where the ghosts of their past arrive, but again, the lead-up to it is not at all organic. Also, Zahra is shown to have a far more traumatic experience at home with higher stakes than this one night on the car journey with Maryam.
This incident is glossed over and not enough attention is given to the impact of this trauma on Zahra and her family.
Zahra and Maryam’s lives have expanded since their childhood, but they still hold space out for each other which remains exclusive. “Perhaps friendships weren’t all about what you said to each other but also about what you didn’t say.”
I have always admired Shamsie’s instinct for observing the subtleties of relationships with her trenchant expressions. At one point, Zahra describes her parent’s marital life as “the endless recycling of conversation”. When Zahra is featured in an article, Maryam crudely points out to her how she has carved out a “ neat narrative arc from suffering through oppressive dictatorship to the director of the Center for Civil Liberties”.
The book is at its strongest when exploring the contours of a childhood friendship and how it evolves. “Perhaps that was the key to the longevity of childhood friendships – all those shared subtexts that no one else could discover. And perhaps shared subtexts felt even more necessary when you both lived far away from the city of your childhood and that was itself the subtext to your lives.”
Given the girls’ distinct backgrounds, this book would have carved out a niche in the coming of age genre if it had focused on Zahra and Maryam’s individual and collective journey towards adulthood. What we get instead is the plot swerving into a time jump which comes out as discordant. Ultimately, the questions the book asks do not seem interesting enough, despite being relevant.
Best of Friends, Kamila Shamsie, Bloomsbury India.