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Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie: An enduring literary friendship

Book review: The author returns to her winning formula, using her characters’ personal histories as a way to discuss broader political concerns

Best of Friends
Best of Friends
Author: Kamila Shamsie
ISBN-13: 9781526647702
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £18.99

“This feeling of threat stalking her, everywhere. Say the wrong thing, turn down the wrong street, allow yourself the mildest transgression and some creature awful and unknown would swoop down on you.” Karachi, 1988, where fear governs the life of 14-year-old Zahra Ali. Brought up in a country under military rule, where phones are routinely tapped and journalists like her father are jailed for telling the truth, Zahra longs to escape Pakistan by earning a scholarship to a prestigious university abroad. She studies hard, respects her teachers and tries to stay out of trouble.

Her best friend, Maryam Khan, doesn’t understand the fuss. Heir to a leather goods empire, she is entitled, bolshie, pragmatic — the realist to Zahra’s idealist — more interested in cricket and boys than her schoolwork. For the most part, the differences between the friends only help to bring them closer. In a lovely authentic touch, each feels the other is superior. They are inseparable: school, home, the occasional disco. All the while, “guns everywhere in Karachi, the phrase ‘Kalashnikov culture’ part of their everyday lives”.

Kamila Shamsie is known for her intricate fiction that skilfully weaves together public and private backdrops. Her 2009 epic Burnt Shadows, which won the Orange Prize, set the stories of two interconnected families against the backdrop of political conflicts ranging from the second World War in Japan to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. Home Fire, her novel before this one, explored the clash of family and society through a modern retelling of Antigone. It was longlisted for the Booker and received the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018.

With this new novel, Shamsie returns to her winning formula, using her characters’ personal histories as a way to discuss broader political concerns. This is not subtly done, nor does it need to be when the fiction is as believable and captivating as Best of Friends. The story is in two parts, the first taking place over a matter of weeks in Karachi, 1988, as authoritarian rule ends, replaced by the democratic election of Benazir Bhutto. Shamsie vividly evokes the mood: “Everywhere else was to be pitied for not being Pakistan in the winter of 1988.” For Zahra and Maryam, there is a world opening up, full of hope and change.


Set against the country’s euphoria is a shared moment of crisis for both girls, one that will have repercussions over decades. Shamsie cleverly underplays the event: a car, the back streets of Karachi, two girls, two boys acting like big men. The tension is all in what might happen, which is inherently linked to the fear of women generally in a vehemently patriarchal society: “You could do anything to a girl here and no one would stop you; you could do anything to a girl anywhere and no one would stop you if you had a car with tinted windows and a stereo system that drowned out all screams.”

The pace of the Karachi narrative is expertly done, loaded with present tense scenes that contain short flashbacks of seminal moments in the girls’ friendship. There are teenage awakenings aplenty, the shock of new desires, liaisons, physical changes. As with classic romance storylines — the structure of Normal People came to mind — the joy for the reader is in the dual perspectives, shifting power dynamics and the question of how it all will end. The infatuated, competitive female friendship of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet is another touchstone, as is Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. In Best of Friends, there is less in the way of fights and arguments, at least until past secrets are revealed in the second part of the story, which moves forward 30 years to London, a few months before the pandemic.

The shift itself is clumsy — two separate media interviews with high-flying civil rights lawyer Zahra Ali and tech entrepreneur Maryam Khan — but thankfully that’s the end of the intertextuality and Shamsie regains momentum by placing us once again in lively scenes that blend personal and political: the indignities suffered by migrants in the UK, the cosy ties of government and business, a questioning of the idea of the traditional family.

If the climactic scene in Best of Friends comes too close to the end of the book, and is followed by an epilogue of sorts that seeks to estrange rather than offer resolution, readers will forgive Shamsie this decision because the vast majority of her narrative is so compelling. With Zahra and Maryam, she has created an enduring literary friendship, two women tied together, historically, culturally, socially, and from those smaller (but also infinitely larger) personal moments that have the power to sustain or destroy across time: “Zahra felt her friend’s pain move into her own heart, sharp and surprising. So this is love, she thought.”

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts