Kamila Shamsie’s new novel Best of Friends begins as a love letter to Karachi, that city by the sea which the writer spent so much of her early career depicting. In the second half, it morphs into a paean to London, even praising the metropolis’s incessantly dull weather.
By considering the book a love letter, I do not forget the proximity, or — to use a Shamsiean word, “propinquity” — of love and hate. The author has no nostalgia for the misogyny and violence of the city of her birth. Neither does she flinch from confronting the snobbery and Islamophobia in her characters’ — and her own — new home, Britain.
Similarly, her “best of friends” protagonists, Zahra and Maryam, share a love relationship occasionally tinted by hate. We get to know them as 14-year-olds attending an elite co-ed school in the Karachi of 1988. Each is the other’s most fervent champion, but also knows her vulnerabilities and secrets.
The girls’ frankness and sense of adventure is constrained by prying eyes during Gen Ziaul Haq’s dictatorial regime. Yet, it will be no spoiler for Eos’s readers to note that, in 1988, Zia’s rule abruptly ended. At this moment, it seems — to paraphrase English poet William Wordsworth — to be young and Pakistani was very heaven. To quote Shamsie’s essay ‘Pop Idols’, when the news of Gen Zia’s plane mysteriously blowing up was broadcast, “Elation was in the air, and it had a soundtrack.”
In a way, the novel’s Karachi section is an extensive rewriting of ‘Pop Idols’, published in 2010 in Granta magazine’s Pakistan issue. Best of Friends isn’t only a tale of two cities — it also bespeaks a passion for the 1980s, that decade of excess; and for music, the food of love.
References are made to Hollywood teen movies such as Pretty in Pink, and to novels by Jackie Collins and Bapsi Sidhwa. The novel’s soundscape encompasses the Islamabad-based music band Vital Signs, and Nazia Hassan’s disco number ‘Telephone Pyaar’ [Telephone Love]. Political songs by Shabana Noshi and Iqbal Bano compete for airtime with mainstream Western pop by Bananarama and George Michael.
Zahra and Maryam have little freedom to experiment with teenage rebellion. They can listen to mixtapes and go for a drive, but even this activity is fraught with danger for girls. The male gaze is fixed on them, just as society’s gimlet eye and the government’s surveillance controls their parents.
The opposite problem adheres in the novel’s London section, as racism threatens to render them invisible. Since this part is set in 2019 and 2020, there is also the reverse scourge of hypervisibility. The age of social media finds “cameras watching, people judging” at all times.
By her 40s, Maryam is recognised as a leading “woman in tech”, having developed a photo-sharing app called Image. Yet Maryam’s fame is eclipsed by Zahra’s celebrity as a human rights barrister and civil liberties campaigner reminiscent of Amal Clooney and Shami Chakrabarti.
Zahra and Maryam are still close friends, despite now living half a world away from their childhood home. However, Zahra is perturbed by the controversies around facial recognition, bullying and Islamophobia, which Maryam’s app is stirring up. Zahra is not on social media because she views platforms such as Image as “Too much noise.” However, her offline persona doesn’t stop her from giving clickbaity interviews to The Guardian, or sexting prolifically with an old flame from Karachi.
In many ways, the novel is vintage Shamsie and raises interesting ideas about justice, friendship, seeing and being seen. Yet it does not cry out for rereading. The privileged schoolgirl timbre permeates even the pages about Maryam’s and Zahra’s adulthood, to grating effect. Neither character is terribly likeable, but nor are they unlikeable enough to be truly compelling. And their love interests are little more than ciphers.
What’s more, the novel tends to pull its punches, as when Gen Zia’s sudden death means Zahra’s father narrowly avoids political trouble. Whether this timing is divine justice or coincidence is left for readers to decide, but they may instead conclude the device is a narratorial cop-out.
Best of Friends wants to show what happens when the world changes suddenly, in both political and personal realms. It even closes with a lyrical and elliptical page or so about the vagaries of the first Covid-19 lockdown. But climactic plot points ultimately prove bathetic and little of any substance changes. Even the dark childhood incident around which the whole narrative is structured is dealt with evasively.
The story’s real strength lies in continuity rather than change, and in the everyday rather than the sensational realm. As well as enjoying Shamsie’s celebration of the ’80s, I also admired her portrayal of female loitering.
In their book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade define loitering as “the purposeless occupation of public space.” While such flanerie is a bland and inoffensive occupation for men, women or girls who appear in public space are hypervisible. Just for picking up a cricket bat or going for a drive or a walk, patriarchal society sees them as transgressive — and they may be endangered for their transgressions.
Small wonder then that, having longed to be a cricketer as a girl in Karachi, the older Maryam cherishes her Sunday walks through London. Her Irish wolfhound, Woolf, provides her with an excuse for going out. It should not escape our notice that the dog’s namesake, modernist writer Virginia Woolf, was also a flaneuse. Almost a hundred years ago, she wrote the long essay ‘Street Haunting’, about her adventures walking in London, describing the “greatest pleasure of town life” as “rambling the streets.” So why should such a pleasure be denied to South Asia’s female population?
The plot twists, such as they are, of Best of Friends will soon evade my memory. What I will keep is the freeing sensation of going for a night-time drive. I’ll remember characters tying up boots spattered with mud to plunge outside for a winter wander. Above all, I expect to hear snatches of the novel’s songs alongside the companionate chatter of old friends as they roam their city unimpeded.
The columnist is Professor of Global Literature at the University of York and author of three books
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 16th, 2022