YesYou don’t need to read the first few pages of Kamila Shamsie’s new novel to understand the theme. Zahra, the daughter of a popular cricket broadcaster in 1980s Karachi, thinks American films rarely focus on female friendships, that these relationships often play out as “a subplot to romance, never the heart of the story”. Shamsie, on the other hand, is concerned about the platonic bond between Zahra and her classmate Maryam, the scion of a post-partition business family. We first see them as insecure teenagers in Pakistan, hanging out after school in each other’s homes, chatting for hours about their stealthy romances, their future lives. Thirty years later, the two are comfortably settled among London’s post-Brexit elite. They take long walks together on Primrose Hill on Sundays and hang out at each other’s plush apartments after work, always talking about the same things, really.
Shamsie describes their bond as an alliance of opposites, but their individual backgrounds seem quite adjacent. Maryam’s parents can afford to spend their summers shopping in London, while Zahra’s parents – her mother is a headteacher – have to report for their well-paying jobs in Karachi during her school holidays. Both girls attend the same expensive school, listen to the same music (George Michael, Tracy Chapman) and briefly crave the same boy at 14. Later in life, Zahra became the leader of a well-known civil liberties group in the UK and was often photographed at events with Annie Lennox and watching “cricket with Malala at Lord’s”.
Maryam is a start-up investor, part of a shadowy cabal of capitalists who trade favors with the same government that Zahra and her organization are determined to hold accountable. Shamsie makes a big deal about Zahra being profiled by the Guardian, while Maryam’s press interviews are too low-key to show up on a Google search. Maryam is happily married with a three-year-old child; Zahra is happily divorced and the “fourth member” in her best friend’s house setup. For much of the novel, the relative lack of conflict only underscores the fact that this is more of a company of equals.
Shamsie deftly captures the self-awareness of girls at 14, how they come to terms with the inevitability of their changing bodies, how the harshness of their approaching adulthood is something they see reflected in the eyes of men who stare unabashedly in public. Maryam calls this feeling “girlfear”: the feeling that instinctively teaches her to avoid certain Karachi and London streets after dark, the grim knowledge that just because the man standing next to her is l A friend of a friend – or, in one stunning scene, a country’s prime minister-elect – doesn’t mean he won’t make a pass.
And yet you can’t help but feel it best of friends is an elusive novel, where the characters sometimes spout performative nonsense – “Adulthood is so complicated”, Maryam clarifies at one point, and 200 pages later, after an adult argument: “Some of me always hated you” – and it all goes pretty well for the protagonists scene after scene, despite everything that could have gone wrong. The years when their lives could have diverged dramatically – Zahra first came to the UK alone on a Cambridge scholarship, while Maryam’s parents sold their factory in Karachi and moved to Britain Brittany at the age of 15 – are passed over in silence.
We are told that as schoolgirls they exchanged ‘notes during the summer’ after a break and that in London they met frequently for ‘poignant conversations’. The reader, however, is never quite aware of these intimate conversations. Shamsie seems more interested in describing their Sunday walks, or the decor of their London flats, or a young Maryam complaining about the security measures at her parents’ gated Karachi mansion. As Virginia Woolf pointed out in her 1924 essay Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, just because a novelist imagined a house does not always follow that “there must be a person who lives there”. The view from a character’s apartment window, the geography of his neighborhood, can tell you very little about the drama of his life.
Zahra and Maryam agree that friendship is all about those “shared subtexts that no one else could discern”. I found myself wishing that Shamsie too would adopt the reader as a friend and sometimes trust us to understand his point of view. Near the beginning of the novel, we learn that Maryam “knew that her parents’ money would pave the way to one college or another.” Does a 14 year old to know this? Or is it something Shamsie wants us to know? The writing can turn into advertising language: Maryam’s family car is “the most elegant of cars”, her school in Karachi is “prestigious”. For Zahra’s father, cricket journalism is not “just his profession, but also his calling”.
Much like a protective parent, Shamsie goes out of her way to ensure her characters are spared the lasting consequences of their actions. Hours after Zahra’s father disobeyed a dictate from then-Pakistani military leader General Zia ul-Haq, the dictator conveniently dies in a plane crash. In a detention center in London, Zahra faces the fate of an Afghan acquaintance whose application for indefinite leave has been refused. But the grief of a man separated from his wife and children serves as the backdrop for a climactic argument between the main characters, one that frankly should have taken place 30 years ago. Shamsie doesn’t seem to realize what Zahra grasps at 14: a subplot is often more compelling than the main story.