Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie

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Review by Susan Osborne

I’ve read all Kamila Shamsie’s novels and, despite enjoying each of them, Burnt Shadows remained my favourite, but with its exploration of ‘80s Pakistan and contemporary Britain through two friends who meet at school, Best of Friends offers some stiff competition.

She was beginning to understand why men and women walked so differently. Men strode owning the world. Women walked with smaller steps, watched and watchful.   

Zhara and Maryam have been friends since they met aged four. In 1988, they’re fourteen years old. Maryam returns from her family’s annual summer holiday in London, beautiful and with a voluptuousness that takes Zhara aback. Both girls are very different but inseparable. From a wealthy background, Maryam is set to take on the family business, a rarity in Pakistan, while Zhara has her eyes on a university scholarship in Britain, her liberal parents being unable to afford the cost. At the beginning of term, the friends think only of their own small worlds, but within months, dramatic events see a woman elected to lead this patriarchal country. On the night of Benazir Bhutto’s inauguration, a misjudgement is made which puts both of them in danger and will have repercussions neither can imagine. Forty years later both are living in London leading very different lives, Zhara as the head of the country’s civil liberties body and Maryam successful enough to hobnob with the prime minister and his chancellor. So close, they’re family to each other, these two will find themselves political polar opposites as the events of that evening in 1988 are brought back into sharp focus threatening a schism in this long, intimate friendship which has sustained them both.

The feeling of being a family settled on the four of them in the shared humour of this moment, which was constructed of so many moments that came before, stretching back years  

Shamsie excels at melding the personal and the political, sketching both characters and the times in which they’re living with insight and a sharp observation. Both Zhara and Maryam are brilliantly realised, deeply flawed but engaging, complex and convincing. While Zhara has a streak of pragmatism, she remains true to her ideals as far as she can contrasting with Maryam’s flexibility in the pursuit of profit. It’s a deeply feminist novel; men don’t come out of it well. Maryam encapsulates the terrifying experience she shared with Zhara in 1988 after leaving the inauguration, coining the word ‘girlfear’ which men will never understand. Background details are vividly portrayed, the unnamed lecherous, greedy prime minister nailed in a few satisfying sentences. Another absorbing, enlightening and astute novel from Shamsie.

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From Susan Osborne blogs at A Life in Books. Never, ever leave home without a book.

Kamila Shamsie, The Best of Friends (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023). 978-1526647719, 336pp., paperback.