Kamila Shamsie, author of several successful novels and writer for the Guardian presents a story on friendship, politics, and the boundaries of loyalty in her newest book, “Best of Friends.” The novel can be split into two narratives, each separated by 30 years and thousands of miles.
The first portion of the book is set in Karachi, Pakistan in the late 1980s.The novel follows two best friends in their early teens, Maryam and Zahra, as dictatorship makes tensions rise in their community. Maryam lives a life of comfort, privilege, and political influence, while Zahra is the daughter of a schoolteacher and a journalist who hosts a popular national cricket television program.
Shamsie does a nice job illustrating the way class can insert itself into even the closest of friendships — often in unsaid, almost indistinguishable ways, and sometimes in conversation-stopping, silencing ways. The cracks and canyons caused by class in close relationships are not lost on Shamsie, and this gives her characters an authenticity that is more than welcome.
After several chapters of introduction and buildup, the book takes off when Zahra convinces Maryam to ride home from a party with Jimmy and Hammad, two older boys. The men taunt and intimidate the girls, the threat of physical and sexual violence running just below the surface of their voices. While they could technically only be legally charged with reckless driving, the impact is crystal clear: This was an instance of gendered, and inherently sexual, violence and trauma.
The evening spurs a series of events that ends with Maryam sent to boarding school in England and Zahra left to finish secondary school without her. But more importantly, this event and the men that facilitated it are the axis, really, that the rest of the book revolves around.
Now, this could have been an effective tool, and it frequently is; the trauma bond is no new phenomenon to the contemporary reader. The problem here, though, is that the trauma and the way it bonds Zahra and Maryam gets muddled — dare I say, faded — over the course of the novel, which would have been fine if Shamsie hadn’t kept insisting on the reassertion of its importance. The two women that lead this novel are strong, complex personalities; they are assertive, successful, and not always totally agreeable, but — more often than not — fundamentally likable. Shamsie gives both of her characters the space and time to be full, multifaceted people.
So, while acknowledging this car ride from their teens as traumatic does the important work of identifying gender violence as something that can be nuanced (and never requiring physical harm to be legitimate), as the characters age, their relationship aging is more interesting than dredging up this scary memory. If Shamsie wanted to make this night the focal point of the novel, she either needed to make the personal/emotional impact of the event stronger or make the event itself more dynamic.
The second part of the book jumps ahead to 2019 in London and begins with a Guardian profile of Zahra and a Yahoo! Finance article on Maryam. The faux journalism is an awkward way to inform the reader of where the women’s adult lives have taken them, but they are not necessarily unpleasant. What is unpleasant, however, about the second portion of this novel is the startling lack of detail in some places and the excess attention given to others.
The entire novel struggles with visual details — very few scenes are described, few people are given physical characteristics, and movement between people, scenes, and places is not written in a way that permits the reader any rights to visualization. While the first part of the novel focuses on class in Karachi, once Zahra and Maryam move to London, this tension dissipates almost entirely, and the adjustment of moving from Pakistan to the United Kingdom goes totally unaddressed. Meanwhile, the reader spends a tedious amount of time considering the intricacies of Zahra’s human rights advocacy and the way that bristles against Maryam’s profit-over-all perspective.
Although reading about these parts of the characters’ lives can be interesting, the decision to include them feels awkward — not bad, just not what the reader was expecting (or wanting, for that matter). The prose works well, and everything that Shamsie addresses is important — but that’s part of the problem. In choosing to incorporate content and characters that all demand large amounts of attention, some don’t get what they deserve and others are overdone. And, all the while, the reader is not granted access to the images needed to process all these narrative pieces in a cohesive way. That’s not to say that every book owes its reader a rich, visual world, but this contemporary novel does and doesn’t step up to the challenge — or even acknowledge the challenge at all.
All in all, this book is not Shamsie’s best work, but it’s more than worth reading. The characters are dynamic and well-developed, and the plot is anything but boring. The friendship of Zahra and Maryam is a pleasure to witness, and Shamsie’s argument on the nature of violence towards women is astute and important. Unfortunately, the novel’s ultimate shortcoming is simply that some aspects are half-baked and underwhelming.
—Staff writer Kelsey S. Mann can be reached at email@example.com.
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