Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Kamila Shamsie’s stunning new novel is an unflinching depiction of the changing friendship between two girls, Maryam Khan and Zahra Ali, who are going to school in Karachi. Their lives are brightened by books, videos and music. They had met for the first time in a bookshop when they had simultaneously reached for the same book.
The Khans, leather factory owners, are wealthy, The Alis, though Zehra’s father is a popular cricket commentator, are poor. Their friendship shows that blood, profession, domesticity and common interest often do not create this special bond.
The power and privilege of the wealthy in Pakistan is obvious to Zahra. She knows ‘the rich live in a different universe’.
One night, there is an incident where two young men, Jimmy and Hammad, drove them to a dark deserted beach. This escapade is fraught with dangerous menace and the experience has a serious impact on both young girls, then and decades later.
In spite of the standing of her family in the community, it is Maryam who suffers most from their scandalous behaviour. She becomes a great disappointment to her grandfather and loses her right to inherit the family fortune. On the other hand, Zahra, poor and lacking social influence, is treated leniently because as a brilliant student with ambition to study at Cambridge, a blemish on her record would jeopardise her future.
This dramatic episode comes near the conclusion of the first part of the novel. Yet hopes are raised with the election of Pakistan’s first woman Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.
Joyful celebrations throughout the country ensue, and women dare to hope this heralds a new and better time for them.
More than thirty years later the pair are recognised as clever, successful women on the London scene. Maryam is the head of a tech Venture Capital company and Zahra is the director of a company CCL, involved with civil liberties. Maryam has married Layla and has a daughter Zola and a dog Woolf. Zahra lives alone but has sexual encounters when it suits.
The descriptions of this now more multilayered relationship are beautifully precise. Kamila Shamsie’s prose is so finely attuned that the two women assume a life that glows on the page. Forty years of their connecting can produce now an ability for them ‘to condense a conversation in just a few syllables.’ They meet sometimes weekly, sometimes weeks or months apart.
It is the passionate rage of a disagreement that exposes the depth of buried seething resentment, and angry judgement that erodes the seemingly enduring friendship. Its strength suddenly becomes fragile. The reappearance of Jimmy and Hammad into Zahra’s life is the catalyst that stirs emotions that spill into vitriolic exchanges.
They always regarded their friendship as it had existed, as ‘being there when it mattered’.
Sadly, this was not to be. The end is bleak – a powerful example of the crystalline nature of best friendship, even one as deep and, one thought, as lasting as theirs.
This book’s predecessor, Home Fires, is a brilliant book. It was universally praised.
For different reasons, Best of Friends too is excellent. Like Home Fires, it is concerned with important, though different, contemporary issues – immigration policy, inequality, male arrogance and condescension, political power and interference.
Be assured, reading this book with its exquisite language and wisely profound observations will spark enthusiastic praise from the harshest of critics.
Author Kamila Shamsie may well become the ‘ best friend’ of many readers!
Best of Friends
by Kamila Shamsie
ISBN 978 152664 769 6