Best of Friends: Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel dissects female friendship in a politically-charged climate
“You can’t let politics get in the way of friendship,” claims a character three-fourths of the way through award-winning British-Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie’s latest book, Best of Friends.
But if real-life, current events are any indication, then politics can certainly impact – even break, relationships.
The American Supreme Court’s controversial decision to overturn federal abortion rights this summer is just one example of a highly-charged travesty that can cause friends to fork in different and ultimately irreconcilable ways.
The politics Shamsie explores in her new book may be of a different sort, but they still cause best friends – Zahra and Maryam – to teeter on a sword’s edge as they balance their relationship amid the various other baggage they carry with them as they grow up.
"Best of Friends is a story of friendship and power and vulnerability and love and the complications of femaleness"
The two have been best friends since the age of four, and the first half of the book gives a glimpse into their lives at the age of 14.
Readers get a front-row seat to the classism and sexism that pervades life in Pakistan – for although Zahra and Maryam attend the same school, they have different family backgrounds.
Maryam’s is part of the set that travels abroad for the summer holidays, swims at an exclusive members-only club, has shards of glass on the boundary walls of their sprawling villas, and hires security guards for the prestige they seem to connote rather than for actual safety. She is the heir to her family’s luxury leather business, while the details of Zahra’s future are “hazy but glittering.”
Zahra’s parents, according to Maryam’s mother’s condescending tone are “decent and hardworking”. Her mother smells like talcum powder, not of designer perfume, while Maryam’s mother is not necessarily more beautiful, just more “elaborately arranged.”
Yet both friends lie on cool marble floors together to escape the heat brought on by frequent Karachi power outages, and both attend a house party one night where their differing reactions to one fateful incident threaten to topple their friendship two and a half decades later.
When they imagine what they will be doing at 40, the answer seems clear: “married, with children – inevitable isn’t it?”
The second half of the book is set in London, where Zahra and Maryam are indeed 40 but instead of falling into the trap of patriarchal domesticity, have carved out impressive careers for themselves in politics and tech.
They have evolved into trailblazers with friends in high places – from Malala to the Prime Minister.
The crux of Shamsie’s story, however, is not the fact that these two women veered away from “traditional” roles and limitations of their culture, but how their friendship survives the vastly different perspectives they each form with womanhood and the emerging social and political advents that are thrown their way – such as immigration policies, ap algorithms, facial tagging and social media bullying, to name just a few.
Ultimately, the best of friends find themselves on opposing sides of a “battlefield”.
“One of the notable features of childhood friendship is that it isn’t based on the same sense of ’things in common that come along with later friendships,” Shamsie tells The New Arab.
“You can find you’re sitting next to someone in class at the age of four and one person helps the other tie her shoelaces, and a friendship is formed that goes on for decades even as people grow into very different adults. That’s what I wanted to write about — the friendship that exists through increasing differences.”
For this reason, she highlights the disparities between Maryam’s and Zahra’s families and upbringings early on in the story. “We see them shaped by class and gender and the politics of the world around them, even while they’re also being shaped more intimately by their families and their friendship with each other,” explains Shamsie.
“A story of female friendship that stretches from childhood through middle age is also a story about the world in which the two women live and what is possible for them within it. There was a particular joy in writing about two central characters, both equally important, rather than focussing on one character — there’s a built-in tension and contrast that’s always in play, and it takes in how they see not just each other but also the world.”
"Best of Friends is a literary product of the pandemic – she started the book in late 2019, and wrote most of it through various lockdowns over the next two years, imbuing her story with memories from her own childhood – such as the inauguration of Benazir Bhutto as Pakistan’s first female prime minister"
Shamsie earned great acclaim for her seventh novel, Home Fire, which explores identity and Islamophobia in Britain.
It was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017 and won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018. Best of Friends is a literary product of the pandemic – she started the book in late 2019, and wrote most of it through various lockdowns over the next two years, imbuing her story with memories from her own childhood – such as the inauguration of Benazir Bhutto as Pakistan’s first female prime minister.
This historical event plays a critical role in impacting and inspiring Zahra and Maryam, who grow to embody and champion female empowerment both personally, and professionally.
“I was fifteen when the dictatorship ended and Benazir came to power,” recounts Shamsie. “It was an enormously significant moment in my life — suddenly, radical change felt possible. I imagine that was particularly true if you were a girl — power had always looked so completely masculine until then. I think it was always going to be just a matter of time before that found its way into one of my novels. Actually, I’m surprised it took me so long.”
She emphasises that the friendship between Zahra and Maryam however, was not rooted in any personal experience – her own best friend after all, who has also been in her life since the age of four, is male.
“I understand the closeness and value of that kind of friendship and how it shifts and also stays the same over the years,” she explains. “As characters, they came from my imagination and followed their own trajectory, quite different to anything that’s part of my lived experience.”
The themes Shamsie probes in Best of Friends through the medium of long-lasting female friendship are deeply complex, contemplative and relatable.
Oftentimes, it’s the sheer fact of being childhood friends that keep a friendship together as opposed to the sharing of similar moralities and loyalties.
“Perhaps that was the key to the longevity of childhood friendships – all those shared subtexts felt even more necessary when you both lived away from the city of your childhood was itself the subtext to your lives,” writes Shamsie.
And while the subtexts of this particular friendship may be rooted in distinct cultural and socio-political considerations of 21st-century Pakistan, this is a book that will resonate with any reader who has experience with maintaining – or even forsaking – a childhood friendship.
“Best of Friends is a story of friendship and power and vulnerability and love and the complications of femaleness,” says Shamsie. “If any of these things interest you then hopefully, you’ll find something to enjoy in the book.”
Hafsa Lodi is an American-Muslim journalist who has been covering fashion and culture in the Middle East for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in The Independent, Refinery29, Business Insider, Teen Vogue, Vogue Arabia, The National, Luxury, Mojeh, Grazia Middle East, GQ Middle East, gal-dem and more. Hafsa’s debut non-fiction book Modesty: A Fashion Paradox, was launched at the 2020 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Follow her on Twitter: @HafsaLodi