Review: Kamila Shamsie’s new novel, ‘Best of Friends’

On the shelf

Best friends

By Kamila Shamsie
Riverhead: 320 pages, $27

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‘Best of Friends’, a new novel by Kamila Shamsie, begins on the first day of school, Karachi, Pakistan, 1988. Zahra, 14, watches as her closest friend Maryam arrives in London in her family’s Mercedes after another summer abroad. After spending months apart, they’re startled by undeniable evidence their teenage bodies are changing, but their 10-year friendship remains unchanged. “If you moved to Alaska tomorrow, we’d still be best friends for the rest of your life,” Zahra tells Maryam — “the only person in the world that Zahra has shown extravagant feelings toward.”

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

The Pakistani half of Shamsie’s narrative is far more effective. In poetic prose, Shamsie describes how friends shape each other in small ways: the secrets shared, the mutual crushes on pop stars, the books exchanged between them, how a best friend can become a fixture in a family home. In Pakistan, the girls are locked up by a surveillance society where confidential information cannot be passed over tapped phones.

They are also divided by the huge income gap. Maryam, heir presumptive to her grandfather’s line of luxury leather accessories, has inflated expectations but also enjoys the trappings of wealth, including a fortress home protected by the trappings of military might. Shamsie also subtly highlights this: “Maryam’s father had carried a peach out of the house and cut it in half, the scent of it filling the air. The security guard went back to the driveway, wiped his hand on the butt of his Kalashnikov, and smeared the cold water on his neck.”

Zahra’s life is less extravagant, although her father’s new role as host of a TV talk show about cricket has made him a celebrity. As he is forced to hold the line Military leadership, Zahra feels trapped in Pakistan, “with its repulsive dictatorship and its censored television and the everyday violence that has shrunk into private quarters her entire life.”

The first break in 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 at risk of being sexually assaulted, and although they return unharmed, Maryam is sent to a British boarding school.

"Best friends," by Kamla Shamsie

From the very beginning of the second half, the narrative feels forced. It starts with a quirky 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, portrayed in the Guardian, is described as “a Muslim migrant who has become the voice of British conscience since taking the position of director at Britain’s oldest civil rights organization a decade ago”. She is helping refugees fight deportation and battling the political winds as the country heads towards Brexit. (She’s also exoticized, as Shamsie hits the tone of the establishment left-wing by comparing her to a panther.)

Maryam, in a Q&A with Yahoo! Finance turns out to be a powerhouse in the tech world and a Tory girlboss of sorts; She wants to “tear apart” the gendered glass ceiling while restricting migration through a performance-based system.

The friends may be on almost opposite ends of the British political spectrum, but both embody the types of model immigrants that the UK prides itself on welcoming. Maryam moves comfortably between wealthy political donors and government officials. The Tories hail it as evidence of diversity, even as the party denies sanctuary to those fleeing oppression in the former British colonies. (Maryam’s tokenism is a prescient note from Shamsie given the recent backlash against Prime Minister Liz Truss’ racially diverse, ideologically homogeneous new cabinet.)

Zahra and Maryam have managed to maintain a friendship built on a shared past. “Maybe that was the key to the longevity of childhood friendships,” Maryam thinks, “all these shared subtexts that no one else could recognize. And perhaps shared subtexts felt even more necessary when you both lived far away from the town of your childhood, which was itself the subtext of your life. The childhood friendship really was the most mysterious of all relationships.”

What finally tests that connection is the arrival in Britain of the two men who had been in the car – the ones whose threats had shaped the course of the women’s lives. The way it’s set in motion unfortunately feels like a betrayal of Shamsie’s characters, a pure plot device that forces both women to act in ways that feel against everything we know about them . Suffice it to say that as events unfold, Zahra and Maryam – there is no other way to put it – become corrupted.

Power corrupts, we already know that, but how does it affect two women who have promised to trust each other no matter what? How does the principle of loyalty compare to all other principles in our lives? Where should it be?

These are profound questions, but Shamsie’s answers seem too schematic, if only for the rich and deeply personal tone of the first part. Certainly, there are powerful moments when we see how little a person changes – or rather, how much his youth has dictated its course – even when he is transferred to another part of the world, a system that (at least on the surface) to work differently.

Thanks to Shamsie, we finally know that the systems are no more different than the people who run them. Still, it feels like we’ve learned that at the expense of the characters. Maryam and Zahra turn out to be just two different archetypes of the “good immigrant” who are put on a crash course. At a time when soundbites and tweets have become our primary means of communication, Shamsie, a brilliant novelist and subtle writer, felt the need to shout. Instead of letting us hear the echoes of a girlhood and another country in her adult characters, she loses faith in her readers to feel her vibes.

Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW. Review: Kamila Shamsie’s new novel, ‘Best of Friends’

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