I loved Kamila Shamsie’s last novel, the 2018 Women’s Prize For Fiction winning “Home Fire” placing it at number 6 in my 2017 Books Of The Year. Although based on the Ancient Greek myth of Antigone it felt extremely relevant to our world. There were some big themes tackled and I said that the author “is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways.”
No wonder I was looking forward to reading this. It feels a much less ambitious work, a quieter novel but it still managed to impress. The best friends are Zahra and Maryam and we first meet them in Karachi in 1988 as two fourteen year olds negotiating adolescence and kissing posters of George Michael. Their friendship has been strong for years, Zahra is keen to point out the difference between their own close bond with a word she has found in the dictionary “Propinquity- a relationship based on proximity” which is what they feel they have with others.
The first half explores the potential minefields of teenage life for two girls in late 1980s Pakistan excellently. It feels pitch-perfect, Zahra is coming to terms with physical changes and feelings, the awkwardness and newness of which will bring shudders of recognition. Maryam, more privileged, feels that her future is mapped out for the with a family leather goods business and a grandfather who sees in her the abilities to take the business on. She plays cricket with his employees, is popular and has more vision than her own father. The girls sense new beginnings with the ascendancy of Benazir Bhutto until an event takes them into an unexpected direction.
The second part of the novel takes us to London in 2019 where the friends are now living very different lives. How far are they the products of their past experience? The second half is unsurprisingly more political as they attempt to improve the adult world they felt let them down as teenagers, but will their friendship survive?
I loved the first half and enjoyed the second half but for me the novel’s strength is in their teenage Karachi days exploring the girls’ strongly forged friendship with all its intensities and experiences together with the limitations that their environment places on them. This feels magnified by the bombardment of the myriad mixed messages of their Pakistani upbringing which the author skilfully conveys.
Best Of Friends is published by Bloomsbury Circus on September 27th 2022. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.