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Review: Kamila Shamsie’s new novel asks: Should friendship transcend politics?

Kamila Shamsie's latest novel is "Best of Friends."
Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel, “Best of Friends,” explores two women growing up in Pakistan who take very different paths in the U.K.
(Alex von Tunzelmann)

On the Shelf

Best of Friends

By Kamila Shamsie
Riverhead: 320 pages, $27

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Best of Friends,” a new novel by Kamila Shamsie, opens on the first day of school, Karachi, Pakistan, 1988. Zahra, 14, watches her closest friend, Maryam, arrive in her family’s Mercedes after another summer abroad in London. Having spent months apart, they are startled by incontrovertible evidence that their adolescent bodies are changing, but their friendship of 10 years remains unaltered. “If you moved to Alaska tomorrow, we’d still be best friends for the rest of our lives,” Zahra tells Maryam — “the only person in the world toward whom Zahra displayed extravagant feelings.”

Shamsie’s 2017 novel, “Home Fire,” was praised for its retelling of Sophocles’ “Antigone” transferred to modern Britain and Pakistan. In “Best of Friends,” Shamsie once again contrasts the two countries, with a first half devoted to the girls’ lives in Pakistan and a second to their adult friendship in the U.K. In each country, Maryam and Zahra’s positions are intertwined with politics and money — not only raising the stakes of their relationship but also revealing troubling parallels between the former colony and its increasingly isolationist former colonizer.

The Pakistan-set half of Shamsie’s narrative is by far the more effective. In poetic prose, Shamsie details the small ways friends imprint themselves on each other: the secrets shared, the mutual pop-star crushes, the books passed between them, how a best friend can become a fixture in a family home. In Pakistan, the girls are hemmed in by a surveillance society in which confidences cannot be shared over tapped phones.

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They are also divided by its enormous income disparities. Maryam, the presumed heir to her grandfather’s line of luxury leather accessories, bears outsize expectations but also enjoys the trappings of wealth, including a fortress house protected by the trappings of military power. These too, Shamsie highlights with a subtle touch: “Maryam’s father had carried a peach out of the house and he cut that in half, the scent of it perfuming the air. The guard walked back toward the driveway, wiping his hand against the butt of his Kalashnikov and smearing the cold water on his neck.”

Novelist Kamila Shamsie picks up after just two distinctive British double ringtones, from her home in London.

Zahra’s life is less extravagant, though her father’s new role as the anchor of a TV talk show about cricket has made him into a celebrity. As he is forced to toe the line for the military leadership, Zahra comes to feel trapped in Pakistan, “with its repellent dictator and its censored television and the everyday violence that had shrunk all their lives into private spaces.”

The first disruption in the friendship comes from a different kind of surveillance, the kind that looms over girls’ developing bodies. One night, they accept a ride in a car with a classmate and his friend. The girls are endangered, threatened with sexual assault, and even though they return unharmed, Maryam is whisked off to a British boarding school.

"Best of Friends," by Kamla Shamsie
(Riverhead)

From the very start of the second half, the narrative feels forced. It opens with a jarring gimmick: back-to-back media profiles of the two friends, published in 2019, 30 years later and half a world away from their schoolgirl days in Karachi.

Zahra, profiled in the Guardian, is described as “a migrant Muslim woman who has become the voice of Britain’s conscience since she took on the position of Director at Britain’s oldest civil liberties organization a decade ago.” She helps refugees fight deportation, tacking against political winds as the country careens toward Brexit. (She is also exoticized, as Shamsie nails the establishment lefty paper’s tone, by being compared to a panther.)

Maryam, in a Q&A with Yahoo! Finance, is revealed to be a powerhouse in the world of technology and a kind of Tory girlboss; she wants to blow the gendered glass ceiling “to smithereens” while limiting migration via a merit-based system.

The friends may occupy near-opposite ends of the British political spectrum, but both embody the types of model immigrants the U.K. lauds itself for welcoming. Maryam moves comfortably among wealthy political donors and government officials. The Tories welcome her as proof of diversity even as the party denies sanctuary to those fleeing repression in Britain’s erstwhile colonies. (Maryam’s tokenism is a prescient touch from Shamsie, given the recent backlash to Prime Minister Liz Truss’ racially diverse, ideologically homogeneous new cabinet.)

Zahra and Maryam have managed to maintain a friendship built on a common past. “Perhaps that was the key to the longevity of childhood friendships,” Maryam thinks, “all those shared subtexts that no one else could discern. And perhaps shared subtexts felt even more necessary when you both lived far away from the city of your childhood that was itself the subtext to your lives. Childhood friendship really was the most mysterious of all relationships.”

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What finally tests that bond is the arrival in the U.K. of the two men who had been in the car — those whose threats had set the course of the women’s lives. The way it’s set in motion, alas, feels like a betrayal of Shamsie’s characters, a pure plot device requiring both women to act in ways that feel contrary to everything we know about them. Suffice it to say that as events progress, Zahra and Maryam are — there’s no other way to say it — corrupted.

Power corrupts, we already know, but what effect does it have on two women who have promised to trust each other no matter what? Where does the principle of loyalty stand in relation to every other principle in our lives? Where should it stand?

These are profound questions, but Shamsie’s answers feel too schematic, if only in contrast to the rich and deeply personal tone of the first part. There are, to be sure, powerful moments in which we can see how little a person changes — or rather how much a person’s youth has determined her course — even when removed to another part of the world, a system that seems (at least on the surface) to work differently.

It’s to Shamsie’s credit that, by the end, we know the systems aren’t any more different than the people running them. Yet it still feels that we have learned this at the expense of the characters. Maryam and Zahra are revealed merely to be two distinct archetypes of the “good immigrant” who are set on a crash course. At a time when soundbites and tweets have become our principal ways of communicating, Shamsie, a brilliant novelist and a subtle writer, felt a need to shout. Rather than letting us hear the echoes of a girlhood and another country in her grown characters, she loses faith in her readers to sense their vibrations.

Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW.

The latest from Ling Ma, Yiyun Li, Russell Banks and Namwali Serpell as well as exciting newcomers round out our critics’ most anticipated fall books.


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