Kamila Shamsie's 'Best of Friends'

Best of Friends (Bloomsbury) by Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie’s blazing 2017 novel Home Fire, winner of the Woman’s Prize and longlisted for the Booker, is a contemporary retelling of Sophocles’ play Antigone; an account of radicalisation and Islamophobia from the perspective of a Muslim family navigating life in Britain.

Best of Friends is a more introspective work, looking at the decades-long friendship of two women who move from Karachi to London. In terms of tension, it’s a slow burn. The book is divided into two parts. The first depicts their adolescence at a prestigious school in Karachi in the 1980s where their attachment is first cemented and tested. Their school years are set against the backdrop of President Zia’s dictatorship and abrupt death and the rise of Benazir Bhutto, who becomes the country’s first female prime minister in 1988.

While Maryam is nonchalant about her studies, Zahra is bookish and works hard. Maryam’s family is well-off and she has the self-assurance of the entitled, safe in the knowledge that she will inherit the family business from her grandfather one day (she doesn’t). Zahra’s family are not as affluent or well-connected. Shamsie focuses on a single defining experience: the “girlfear” the friends feel as teenagers when they are taken on a dangerous joy ride by two young men.

Thirty years later, Shamsie uses the device of a Guardian feature and a media profile to demonstrate the friends’ successful integration in London. Zahra has become the director of a well-known civil liberties group and Maryam is a top venture capitalist. Maryam swiftly recognises: “England taught you the subtleties of language – ‘When did you arrive here?’ was something you never wanted to hear; ‘When did you move here?’ was fine. The movers had options, the arrivers simply followed a trajectory out of a hellhole and washed up on some better shore.” Maryam and Zahra clearly represent the immigrants Britain welcomes. It’s a subject Shamsie knows well (she moved to London in 2007 and is now a dual national) and pertinent observations like these are threaded through the novel.

Maryam courts the British government for her own ends, whereas Zahra tries to expose its shortcomings. Their different moral outlooks are spotlit when Zahra tries to help someone legitimately obtain leave to remain. She is horrified by the conditions of the deportation centre she visits. By contrast, Maryam pulls strings to gets an enemy from their past deported.

Shamsie’s exposure of the UK’s immigration system is as acute and damning as her exploration of counter-terrorism policies in Home Fire. She highlights the government’s hypocritical acceptance of successful migrants, and disdain for those who are of no financial value. Pakistan and Britain may be worlds apart politically but, as Shamsie slyly suggests, when the ruling class let inequality, cronyism and corruption take root, these divisions narrow.

This piece is from the New Humanist winter 2022 edition. Subscribe here.