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Kamila Shamsie’s Best of Friends reveals the complexities of female relationships

The author’s portrait of two women growing up in 1980s Karachi exposes the contempt that can often lie beneath love.

By Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Karachi, Pakistan, 1988. A party, a safe one, where 14-year-olds dance with their classmates from an elite school. Outside the gate their families’ drivers wait by the parked cars, ready to take them home. But teenagers don’t always want to be kept safe. Maryam and Zahra, the girls whose best-friendship this novel chronicles, leave with Hammad, an older boy. Soon they are in a car being driven not by a trustworthy servant, but by Hammad’s creepy friend Jimmy, who is much too old to be flirting with them, who seems to have criminal connections and who is intent on frightening them out of their wits.

Nothing terrible happens. There is no kidnap, no rape, no car crash – although all seem likely in the course of the night – but the three adolescents’ lives are drastically disrupted.

Thirty years later, by which time they are all in London, Jimmy reappears. Maryam is now a venture capitalist funding tech start-ups, making lots of money and attending gatherings hosted by the High Table, an association where Tory donors schmooze with cabinet ministers. Zahra is the director of the Centre for Civil Liberties and a much-interviewed public intellectual. For all their differences the two are still close, meeting for long walks each Sunday. Jimmy’s return is the catalyst for a sequence of revelations – political, personal and moral – that call into question any easy assumptions we may have been making about them, and about what constitutes a good life.

Kamila Shamsie’s novel tackles difficult questions but it’s an easy read. It begins straightforwardly. We shift between the points of view of the two girls, the narrative taking us – we are led to believe – into their inmost thoughts. We see their parallel lives, merged at school, but sharply divergent out of it. Maryam, whose rich family has armed guards at the gates, is heir apparent to a leather-goods business – a princess of the business world. Zahra lives in a small flat with her school-teacher mother and broadcaster father.

When Pakistan’s President Zia-ul-Haq is killed in a plane crash they rejoice, not only because they hope for a new liberal regime, but because Zahra’s father has had a visit from a brigadier suggesting that if he fails to publicly praise Zia he may regret it. He knows what that means. One of his fellow journalists has been tortured.

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We see all this, but it is only in the second part of the book – when the novel’s forward momentum is complicated by hindsight – that we realise how much was not revealed to us. Both women left Pakistan to live in a country where their “subtexts” are not understood. Now, recalling what was repressed about their early life, they reflect on those subtexts in ways that enrich our understanding of their personal histories.

Their friendship is the novel’s central pillar, but by making both women prominent figures, Shamsie has allowed herself to introduce other themes that arch off from it. She has much to say about what Maryam calls “girlfear”, the anxiety that women feel walking along a dark street. To Zahra, in middle age, that anxiety is unremitting. Zahra is a hate figure to nationalist extremists, but the death threats “didn’t sit heavy inside her; instead they formed only one seam of the skin of fear stitched on to her which marked her as a woman”.

Those threats arise from her work with immigrants who have been denied the right to remain in Britain. Generally, when novelists become didactic their work is at its dullest, but Shamsie is unusually good at exposition. She leads us through Zahra’s working day, following her thought processes as she weighs human kindness against legalism, and long-term political change against the immediate happiness or misery of individuals. Fiction is often fixated on love and violence; there are not enough thoughtful novels about work – the stuff we spend most of our time doing – but this is one of them.

Maryam’s work is different, and so is her attitude towards it. She is an investor and chair of a social media site called Imij. A girl has attempted suicide after being mocked on the app. Cyber-bullies have posted a doctored image that makes her look like a pig (doubly distressing since she is Muslim). Maryam is concerned, not about the poor girl, but because the public furore jeopardises the buyout deal from which her firm stands to make $14bn. Maryam is good at her job, which is not about making people happy, but making them rich.

It’s a mark of how Shamsie refuses easy stereotyping that this doesn’t mean Maryam is heartless or nasty. Shamsie is alive to nuance, and to “the unknowability of other people”. Creating her paired heroines, she plays wittily with the way appearances mislead. In their teens Maryam, with her early-sprouting breasts, was the one boys found sexy. It was gawky Zahra who craved sex and led them both into trouble. As the story develops Shamsie continues to reject any simplistic division between the virtuous and the immoral. In their forties, professionally ruthless Maryam, for whom profit always trumps principle, lives in loving kindness with her female partner, their daughter and dear old dog, while high-minded, altruistic Zahra prefers clandestine, commitment-free encounters with men she doesn’t particularly like.

[See also: The cutting wit of Alan Rickman]

When Maryam is a girl in Karachi she sees how her grandfather achieves results by what is euphemistically described as “making a phone call”. The person called knows how to put the frighteners on anyone who gets in the way of Khan Leather. As an adult Maryam likes to make phone calls too – not to hitmen, but to people in power. Shamsie has written before about politicians, notably in her 2017 novel Home Fire – winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018 – which transposed Antigone to the British Muslim community.

In Best of Friends Shamsie’s description of Maryam’s excursions into political circles is nicely satirical. The prime minister (never named) is a recognisable portrait of the one who has just left office in the real world. Shamsie describes a London garden party where Maryam duels with him, answering flattery with sharply articulated demands, repelling patronising flirtation with an adroitly dropped name. It’s funny and sharp – a telling dramatisation of the way politics and business scratch each others’ backs.

Shamsie isn’t a great stylist. Her prose often feels off-the-peg. The plot strand where Zahra flirts with Hammad by text and eventually takes him to bed is unconvincing. But these are weak points in a capacious novel with much to say: about facial-recognition technology – the uses and abuses; about Benazir Bhutto, whose inauguration and assassination are punctuation points in the narrative; most importantly about the misery of people who have come to Britain, settled and married and worked for years here only to be told they don’t belong; finally about friendship, the complexities of which Shamsie sees plain.

[See also: Hilary Mantel: “The writer occupies both past and present. She is never absent from the story”]

“We’ll always be us,” says young Maryam, “Even if you’re living in Alaska.” The girls are devoted to each other, but already in the novel’s first part there are hints of what is wrong between them. By the end the resentments are out in the open. This is not a simple affirmation of the value of female friendship, but something more interesting, a candid exposé of the contempt and competitiveness underlying many forms of love.

Kamila Shamsie appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 18 November

Best of Friends
Kamila Shamsie
Bloomsbury, 272pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?