Best of Friends

- By Kamila Shamsie Bloomsbury Circus, £16.99 (hardcover)

Kamila Shamsie’s eighth novel is a tale of contrasts: England and Pakistan; public and private; personal and political; ideology and opportunis­m; rich and … well, not quite so rich.

The best of friends of the title are Maryam and Zahra, fourteen-year-old girls who attend a posh school in Karachi. It is 1988. Maryam is the pampered scion of a leather-goods dynasty, run by her hard-nosed grandfathe­r; he intends to bypass his feckless, dilettante son and hand the company reins to Maryam when she comes of age. This expectatio­n informs her attitude to everything. Zahra’s home life is less opulent but nonetheles­s comfortabl­e. Her father, a sports journalist, fronts a new – and wildly popular – cricket show on º». Zahra is head-girl material and dreams of an Oxbridge scholarshi­p. Headstrong Maryam flirts with a slick older boy, Hammad; Zahra is demure, but enjoys being looked at.

The rarefied Karachi these girls inhabit is also a place of opposition­s. There’s talk of Jackie Collins, Bruce Springstee­n and boys fit for snogging, but also military dictatorsh­ip, banned poetry and judicial flogging. Both families are broadly secular; there are opportunit­ies for women. But authoritar­ianism presses in. Zahra’s father receives a visit from General Zia’s goons; he is asked to say something obliging on his show about the Pakistani leader. Maryam’s grandfathe­r has other matters on his mind: he has ‘little time for democracy, which brought too many variables into play’.

The novel’s opening sections are wonderfull­y realised. Shamsie captures the fizz and fissure of teenage friendship, the rivalry and trust, the secrets shared and hidden. The Karachi glimpsed from car windows is thrilling and dangerous, and, when Zia is assassinat­ed and the liberal Benazir Bhutto becomes prime minister, Pakistan seems to be at a crossroads. This crux is mirrored by a defining episode in the girls’ lives: after leaving a party, they get into a scrape when they go o‰ with Hammad and another man. Zahra manages to emerge with her reputation untarnishe­d; Maryam finds herself in disgrace.

In the novel’s second half, Zahra and Maryam are now in their mid-forties and living in London. It is 2019 and the traits and themes laid out so carefully by Shamsie have hardened into something more programmat­ic. Zahra, a lawyer by training, is the head of a civil liberties organisati­on. Maryam is a venture capitalist, whose portfolio includes a sinister ‘photo-andvideo-sharing app’ that boasts state-of-the-art facial-recognitio­n software: the stu‰ of civil liberties nightmares. But Zahra and Maryam remain close. ‘You can’t let politics get in the way of friendship’, another character proddingly reminds us.

To spice up this opposition is the friends’ approach to private life. Zahra is divorced and single; she has sex with awful men. Maryam, by contrast, enjoys a perfect domestic setup with her wife, Layla – a sculptor – and their delightful­ly (and not always credibly) mature ten-year-old daughter.

While we can well imagine Zahra and Maryam turning out this way, Shamsie seems intent on highlighti­ng her schema at every turn, then plonking it back in the context of Karachi 1988. Accordingl­y, the characters have a maddening habit of reflecting on past events as if they happened 30 pages, rather than 30 years, ago. This intensifie­s when the past comes back to haunt them, following the return of Hammad. With character relegated to theme, sympathy falls away, and, by the end, Shamsie appears to have developed a distaste for both of her protagonis­ts. Yet Best of Friends is not quite a satire or morality tale.

Shamsie’s observatio­ns about social media are clever and incisive, as are those about Pakistani and English social mores. There are some excellent vignettes, including the spectre of a Boris Johnson-like prime minister cutting a grubby deal with Maryam. What it all amounts to is rather more disappoint­ing. But this novel of contrastin­g fortunes remains worth reading for its first half alone. Toby Lichtig

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