Maryam and Zahra are teenage girls growing up in Karachi in the late 1980s when Benazir Bhutto is democratically elected after the death of dictator General Zia. Both are inspired by the progressive future that thirty-five year old Bhutto seems to promise, but both are also dealing with the rise of what Maryam calls ‘girlfear’: the growing realisation that they cannot move through the world in the same way as men. And although they are close friends, both from relatively privileged backgrounds, they are at heart very different: wealthy Maryam is heir to her family’s leather business, dreaming of one day taking her grandfather’s place, while middle-class, idealistic Zahra wants to go to Cambridge and be a lawyer. The slow trace of desire and unease as the girls recognise their awakening sexuality is very well done, setting Best of Friends apart from many similar coming-of-age novels; as does the evocation of the particular experience of being a teenager in this place, in this time.
Kamila Shamsie’s previous novel, Home Fire, was remorseless and explosive; given that, I’m not surprised that she wanted to write something rather gentler, with lower stakes. Nevertheless, I liked the development of Maryam and Zahra’s relationship as they move away from their early years and become successful forty-something women in London. I’ve said before that Shamsie’s writing can be heavy-handed, and that isn’t totally absent here; sometimes she spells out exactly what she wants to say about friendship rather than letting the reader realise it. ‘Childhood friendship really was the most mysterious of all relationships… it was built around rules that didn’t extend to any other pairing in life’. However, there are also more thought-provoking observations, such as the description of two elderly women walking together that is allowed to speak for itself.
And while Maryam and Zahra at first appear to be differentiated rather schematically from each other, I thought both grew into much richer characters. I was especially heartened by how seriously Shamsie takes Zahra’s political and moral commitments. Writers often suggest that, when it really comes down to it, what’s ‘real’ is your love for your friends and family and that will always come first. That’s definitely Maryam’s view, but it’s not Zahra’s – or at least, her definition of those she loves stretches much further than those who are personally known to her. As Maryam and Zahra approach their moment of reckoning, it’s clear that what sets them apart isn’t jealousy or petty resentment but a real difference in their core values, which is so refreshing after reading so many novels like Anna Hope’s Expectation, which boil down problems in female friendship to grudges over men or children.
I didn’t think Shamsie quite hit the emotional climax she wanted to in this novel, but it’s an absorbing read that, for me, moves far away from the problems I had with her earlier historical fiction, Burnt Shadows and A God In Every Stone, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Home Fire.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 27th September.