Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 12, 2022

Best of Friends, by Kamila Shamsie

I’ve had a mixed experience with Kamila Shamsie’s novels: Home Fire which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction was excellent reading, (2017, see my review) but her latest, Best of Friends (2022) joins A God in Every Stone (2014, see my review) and Burnt Shadows (2009, see my review) as good but not great IMHO.

Best of Friends will inevitably be compared to Ferrante’s homage to female friendship in the Neapolitan Novels.  The preoccupations of the first part of the novel felt a bit like YA to me: it tells the chaste story of two 14-year-old girls in Pakistan negotiating adolescent interest from boys. More interesting was the girls bridging the class divide and discovering the mismatch between Karachi and western culture as they perceive it through pop songs and movies.

Zahra and Maryam share enough of the same background to attend the same exclusive school, but Zahra’s father is a cricket journalist and her ambitions depend on a scholarship to Oxbridge whereas Maryam (less gifted intellectually and less self-aware) is destined to inherit her grandfather’s luxury leather brand and her place at university is assured by her family’s money. But the real difference between these versions of privilege is the levels of risk in a military dictatorship.  Zahra’s father is vulnerable to pressure to reference President Zia in his broadcasts while Maryam’s father has ‘connections’ that can be called upon to resolve any problem.

However…

The assumptions around that privilege of power are subverted when a foolish jaunt with some boys (which is blown up out of all proportion IMO, even in a majority Muslim country) provokes Maryam into wanting revenge on Jimmy and Hammad.  She demands that her grandfather ‘frighten’ them and he (hypocritically IMO) takes the moral high ground rather than encourage a sense of proportion, and not only refuses to do it but overreacts and upends all of Maryam’s expectations about her future.

Then the novel advances three decades to Britain, where these young women have now both seamlessly advanced to become high achievers with money and power and prestige.  This part of the novel was a bit heavy-handed in places.  Shamsie revisits earlier preoccupations with the treatment of immigrants through Zahra’s role as head honcho of a civil liberties NGO, which bumps up against Maryam’s venture capital forays into facial recognition software. enabling some inconclusive discussions about it. This part of the novel also revisits events with Jimmy and Hammad, depicting a decades-long resentment that seemed overblown to me, given that nothing had happened, not even a kiss or embrace.

Does their friendship survive?  I had lost interest by the time this question is answered.  But readers who love books about female friendship will probably love it.

Tanjil Rashid at The Guardian explored the novel’s place in postcolonial literature but Abhrajyoti Chakraborty at the same newspaper felt that it lacked tension.

Author: Kamila Shamsie
Title: Best of Friends
Cover design & illustration by Greg Heinimann
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2022
ISBN: 9781526647696, pbk., 314 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

 


Responses

  1. I’ve also had mixed opinions about her novels, and agree with your assessment. I’m not sure I’ll try this one.

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    • Don’t let me put you off Home Fire!

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  2. Not for me, I suspect!

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  3. Oh dear, I was looking forward to this having enjoyed Home Fire though I’m a little weary of narratives that have an event in the past that comes back to bite the key players in their new lives.

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    • Well, I was too.
      I haven’t read all her books, but I’ve read plenty of these childhood-in-one-place and then an-outsider-in-another-place stories, and if that’s the structure that the author is working with, it does need to be linked in some way. I’m relieved she hasn’t done a Ferrante saga, but it does feel as some part of the story is missing.

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      • Good point about the need for linkage. So many books I pick up now have dual time frame narratives but one is invariably stronger than the other. I can’t help wonder if this is just one of the approaches they get taught in MFA programmes?

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        • It would be interesting to know…

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  4. Like you I thoroughly enjoyed Home Fire, but I couldn’t read past the first page of this one. Too many other books to tempt me!

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  5. I like novels about female friendship but…. probably not this one :) Neopolitan Novels for sure, Cats Eye by Margaret Atwood and Swing Time by Zadie Smith are some of my favs.

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    • I really liked Cat’s Eye, I’ve liked all of Atwood’s early novels. I’ve just been a bit hesitant since Oryx and Crake.

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  6. I really enjoyed this one, I liked the two centres and the contrast in their current lives was a bit didactic but then you need something to make the book have a plot and tension. I felt like the tension was within each of their lives rather than between the two, which was interesting in itself. I’ve never fancied the Ferrentes for some reason, though I like books about female friendship; I found this one interesting and liked the up to date London setting.

    I only appear to have read two of her very early novels, though I thought I’d read her last one, so I can’t really comment on which are better than which others, as I don’t remember the first two, read in 2005 and 2006 so I’ll forgive myself for that!

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    • LOL Liz, over a lifetime of enthusiastic reading, it can be hard to keep track of everything we read.

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