Best of Friends
By Kamila Shamsie
Can you be best friends with someone whose politics you despise?
In her eighth — and unsettlingly candid — novel Best of Friends, Kamila Shamsie takes on seemingly picture-perfect female friendships, those ostensibly eternal relationships idealised frequently on Instagram, TikTok and other social media outlets.
From the Karachi of the 1980s to a London newly transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Best of Friends forces its readers to rethink the images of innocence, selfless love, self-discovery and heady fun that they have long associated with women who have been ‘best friends’ since middle- or primary school.
Quieter, more gradual and less overtly political than Shamsie’s defiant bestseller Home Fire, which came out in 2017, Best of Friends is a foray into the world of two elite Pakistani women as they venture from girlhood to adulthood and whose lives, despite personal and professional successes, remain fraught with the politics of citizenry and belonging.
Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel is a compelling work that, once again, exhibits her range, verve and her unrelenting ethical impulse
The latter is, of course, a critical theme in Shamsie’s later works. If in her last work, Home Fire, the politics of immigration and extremism shaped the novel’s space, time and the core of its characters, in this new work, the political is — for a large part — an underlying but constant fact.
It is an itch, a perpetual — if not welcome — shadow, a silent companion that makes itself known just as the reader begins to believe that personal relationships and shared pasts trump everything.
The novel opens by introducing us to Zahra and Maryam, who share a “feeling of completeness” that is only possible when “you’d been best friends with someone since the age of four.” We know that they attend one of Karachi’s “most prestigious schools”, a place which Zahra — whose middle-class father is a sports journalist and mother is the principal of a less elite school — knows can lead her to the “grandeur of Oxbridge” or the “glamour of the Ivy League.”
Maryam, on the other hand, is the appointed heir to her grandfather’s leatherworks factory and industrial clout. For her, the only imaginable “future” is “one that would unfold in Karachi” — a city that she navigates and understands with all of the careless privilege that class affords.
Despite this, the two girls are inseparable, to the point that the economic and social distances between them collapse to give way to a sisterhood that subsumes even their families and family homes.
Undercurrents of what is to come are visible early on. Maryam appears to lead a secret life in which adventures range from driving the family car in industrial, working-class neighbourhoods, to learning the usefulness of torture tactics on disloyal employees. Zahra, meanwhile, strives to get out of the country with a scholarship, all the while tormented by the possible terrors that the Islamist dictator of the time, Gen Ziaul Haq, may unleash on her journalist father.
The girls also explore their budding sexualities secretly, neither revealing to the other their rather reckless experimentations with their bodies, despite their extreme closeness.
Gen Zia’s miraculous death and Benazir Bhutto’s victory as the first female prime minister of a Muslim-majority country bring a flicker of hope and change to the girls’ attitudes, but that glimmer fades quickly as they begin to test the limits of what seems to them a new era of freedom.
The key test — a post-party drive with a senior male schoolmate and his even older friend — though a brief moment in the novel, scars and transforms the lives and consciousness of both girls for the rest of their lives. As this first half of the novel closes, we are reminded that the city, even for the elite, is a place of imminent terror.
The second half of the novel opens in London of the 2000s. Karachi and its foreboding interior seem far away in a city where Zahra and Maryam — now in their 40s — take weekly walks in the park and operate at the pinnacle of their careers, with their lives still as comfortably intertwined as before.
Zahra has a flourishing career as an immigration and human rights lawyer. She is divorced and childless, but doesn’t lack for family as Maryam — now life-partnered with a Zambian woman, Layla — is parent to a young daughter, Zola, for whom Zahra is both an aunt and a role model. They maintain ties with their own parents who visit or call from Karachi, but both women are now long-term residents of the United Kingdom. Once again, life seems near idyllic, as it did in the Karachi of their childhood.
The story comes to a head when the work Zahra does — help refugees gain immigrant status — and what Maryam does — invest in surveillance and artificial intelligence software — come into direct conflict, symbolising the dark rifts that existed in their friendship from its earliest days.
We are reminded of Zahra’s revulsion for dictatorships and of the indifference that Maryam’s privilege has bred, even as 1980s’ Karachi is replaced with the UK under Boris Johnson’s Tory government.
The past and the present come into a bitter convergence when Zahra’s work in human rights law is imperilled by Maryam and her attachment to power, even as Maryam comes to understand that that long-ago drive in Karachi — and the disintegration of her life that followed — was an event in which Zahra was complicit, rather than victim.
In one of the final scenes of the novel, the crisis of the two women is clear: they want desperately to hold on “to the unchanging truth of their friendship” even as the thought “a part of me has always hated you” persists in their individual consciousnesses.
While the novel takes on a long historical arc — from 1980s’ Pakistan to London of the present — at its heart is a candid and uncomfortable truth: the female subject, despite being presented in saintly or consumerist moulds, is simultaneously a political subject.
How much this politics informs her actions and relationships is, of course, the variable that Shamsie grapples with in this work. Tearing away the illusion of a love that is above the politics of being — whether sexual, ethical, moral or religious — she makes a powerful entry into a territory that offers little forgiveness if treated with even the slightest clumsiness. Best of Friends is a compelling work that, once again, exhibits Shamsie’s range, verve and her unrelenting ethical impulse as a novelist and chronicler of our times.
The reviewer is associate professor of Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at the Mushtaq Gurmani School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Lums, Lahore
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 2nd, 2022