No colonial education is complete if you haven’t been forced to memorise a poem about daffodils. ‘Do you want to know what we all think of Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”?’ Maryam mumbles into her desk in Kamila Shamsie’s eighth novel, Best of Friends. ‘Off with their sprightly heads!’ It’s Karachi in the summer of 1988. Maryam Khan and Zahra Ali are fourteen. They go to the same private school, but Maryam is the big name: attractive, imperious and uber-rich. Set to inherit the luxury goods empire Khan Leather, she’s indifferent to schoolwork: her future is mapped out. Zahra, the dreamy intellectual one, wants to get a scholarship to Cambridge. Still, they have plenty in common. They take turns kissing a George Michael poster, read Jackie Collins’s bonkbusters and fancy the same bad boy, Hammad.
Shamsie makes clear from the start that the girls belong to different parts of Karachi’s upper middle class. Extreme wealth buffers the Khans’ experience of everyday life. When it’s too hot, their private security guards smash blocks of ice with Kalashnikovs, so that the family can soak their feet in cold water. Maryam’s grandfather, the Khan patriarch, raises her to believe that ‘power respects power.’ He keeps a man called Billoo on his ‘unofficial payroll’ and rings him when he needs something done: kneecaps broken or suitcases filled with alcohol brought into the country circumventing customs.
The Khans divide their time between London and Karachi: they’re part of a floating class that has the privilege of remaining apolitical in turbulent times. Life isn’t so easy for the Alis. General Zia-ul-Haq has been in power for a decade, and public safety orders dating back to the Raj are still imposed to stop demonstrations. Zahra’s father, Habib, is a sports journalist, with a column in an Urdu-language newspaper and a popular cricket show on TV. One day, the family receives a visit from an army brigadier who tells Habib that Zia is a big fan of the programme, and that in his next broadcast he should really consider thanking the general for having persuaded Imran Khan to come out of retirement to help Pakistan’s cricket team take on the West Indies. It’s the last thing Habib wants to do: ‘I’m not thanking that man.’ A close friend of his was flogged for protesting against press censorship – ‘they’d tied Iqbal’s hands and feet to a wooden frame and used a belt to secure his torso in place’ – and Habib decides not to do the army’s bidding. Zahra is terrified for her father (she worries about ‘the breakability of his bones’), then the news comes that Zia has died in a plane crash.
But the story is about Maryam and Zahra. Shamsie writes deftly about the way puberty can leave you alienated from your body. When Maryam develops breasts, she feels that she has ‘lost the ability to judge her own dimensions’; she doesn’t realise at first that everyone colliding with her chest is male. The novel also captures the small moments of furtive delight that come with being a teenager. Sitting behind her parents in the car at a red traffic light, Zahra flashes a bra strap at a man with a moustache like Tom Selleck’s. Any ambiguity about the friendship between Maryam and Zahra is swiftly shut down: Maryam, who later has a female partner, broaches the subject of kissing a girl, but when Zahra replies, ‘You mean each other?’ she screws up her face and says no more.
One evening, the girls go to a party celebrating Benazir Bhutto’s inauguration. Maryam dances too close to Hammad, then agrees to go on a drive with him. Zahra tags along to protect her friend’s reputation. Seeing an older man, Jimmy, at the wheel, she slides into the passenger seat, briefly thrilled by his brutish air. But she quickly feels out of her depth. Kidnappings are common in Karachi and her parents can’t afford a ransom. Realising that Zahra is crying, Maryam demands that Jimmy take them home. Instead, he drives them to the red light district. The girls get home safely, but don’t escape punishment. Maryam takes the fall and is packed off to boarding school in England.
The second half of the book leaps forward, landing in Primrose Hill in 2019. Maryam is now a hard-nosed venture capitalist, backing a social media start-up called Imij, whose facial tagging capabilities she uses to trade favours with the Tory government. Zahra, who is also living in London, runs an organisation dedicated to safeguarding the civil liberties threatened by such technologies. She’s a regular on the BBC, papped on stage with Annie Lennox or at Lord’s with Malala. We learn very little about their lives in the intervening years. Shamsie reintroduces them after the time lapse by way of two profiles – Zahra’s in the Guardian, Maryam’s on Tech Capital News.
For the past 25 years, Shamsie has been working on a vast scale. Her third novel, Kartography (2002) takes 1990s Karachi – and the creation of Bangladesh – as its backdrop. Her fifth, Burnt Shadows (2009), begins with a character in Guantánamo Bay asking, ‘How did it come to this?’ before going back to Nagasaki during the Second World War, on to India during Partition, and from there to Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US post 9/11. There’s a thrill that comes with the grand sweep, the comparison between Western imperialist projects, but Shamsie writes best about Karachi, where she grew up. She uses details that allow even fleeting characters to exist as people rather than types: ‘the woman in number 9C who would flip her long hair over the balcony after a shower and squeeze, directing the water into a flowerbed below, ensuring that the snapdragons she had planted there stayed alive even through water shortages’. Writing about Japan, by contrast, she relies on heavy symbolism with racial undertones. On the day the atomic bomb explodes, one character, Hiroko, is wearing a silk kimono, so the shadows of its birds are scorched into her back. Her father is shunned for setting fire to cherry blossom in protest at the war.
Shamsie’s writing often seems more interested in language than in people. In Best of Friends, Maryam the capitalist and Zahra the political activist use words as tools, which has the effect of making Shamsie’s more reflective passages seem untethered. Sections of free indirect speech that purport to give us access to Maryam’s consciousness feel trite: ‘The world was exactly as her grandfather had always taught her it was. Terrible and brutal, unforgiving. But she also knew the truth that followed on from that which he had failed to understand: hold close the ones you love, protect them. There is no other source of light.’
The novel’s two settings allow Shamsie to establish a neat cross-cultural comparison: to sound the alarm on increased state surveillance in the UK by comparing it to Karachi under General Zia. But showing is sacrificed to telling. ‘The British,’ Zahra says, ‘are too complacent that their democracy is so robust it can’t be weakened.’ The book is set up like a child’s folded symmetry painting; there are no surprises in its second half. Shamsie’s characters rarely change their own minds or anyone else’s. Surveillance is a source of friction between the women, but it’s one only the reader feels: Zahra is a mouthpiece for Shamsie’s politics, but often bites her tongue. When Maryam insists that the only danger of tapped phones in Pakistan is the embarrassment of ‘crossed lines with your social set’, accusing Zahra as they walk across Hampstead Heath of milking ‘the oppressiveness of growing up under military rule’, Zahra silently skims a pebble across the pond.
Maryam uses Imij’s facial tagging capabilities to blackmail people who threaten her business, and genuinely believes that surveillance is a good thing; she won’t allow her daughter to walk in the park without tracking her and thinks that street CCTV will keep her safe. Zahra reminds her that the government’s response to a court ruling that ‘facial recognition was racially biased and disproportionately used’ was to make it more widely available; Maryam laughs this off, convinced that Zahra is determined to see racism everywhere. But Maryam’s nefarious use of Imij is just a plot device, a blunt instrument: Shamsie has no large point to make about surveillance capitalism; nor does she make a connection between surveillance and what a novelist might be up to.
One afternoon, a headline pops up on Maryam’s phone: ‘Imij almost killed my child.’ After being bullied on the platform and then flooded with content to do with self-harm, a Muslim girl attempted suicide. Maryam, having to deal with the media attention and the trending hashtag #JusticeForTahera, goes on the offensive. A colleague digs up an incriminating photo of Tahera’s father, the ‘nation’s favourite dad’, with his mistress, and pays a private investigator to deliver it to him in an envelope just before he’s due to appear on the Today programme.
The threat that Maryam recognises in Tahera’s dad isn’t just the internet safety bill he’s campaigning for, but his looks: he’s the kind of brown that white people like. Newspapers gush about his ‘caramel skin and long lashes’. Shamsie is at her most nuanced when writing about the subtleties of assimilation. Whenever Pakistan plays a test match at Lord’s, Maryam gives places in the Venture Further box to old schoolfriends. They stand around ‘drinking rosé and Pimm’s, the men wearing linen and sometimes straw hats too, reflecting their first encounter with a certain kind of Englishness via the BBC adaptation of Brideshead Revisited that had done the rounds of Karachi society via pirated video in the early 1980s’. At one point Maryam’s father calls methi ‘fenugreek’; I had to explain the joke to a white friend. The best I could do was that it’s the equivalent of a British person calling cheese ‘fromage’, if this country had been colonised by France.
Many of Shamsie’s books are an attempt to explain to a Western audience the effect the West has had on other parts of the world. In her best and most urgent novel, Home Fire (2017), she maintains narrative tension by making sure that every conversation about politics has a personal importance, that every issue of personal loyalty has a public dimension. Parvaiz, a shy audio geek, perches in a tree in London, recording snippets and stringing them into soundscapes, before being recruited into IS’s media team. He’s lured to Syria by false promises of brotherhood, vulnerable because he’s lonely. The recruiters exploit his family history: the Home Office had refused to release any information about his father, other than the fact that he died on the way to Guantánamo.
Best of Friends seems formulaic by comparison, as Shamsie allows her characters to mistake private motivations for political positions. After seeing Zahra on Question Time blaming the relative lack of response to Tahera’s story on Islamophobia, Maryam goes to an elite donor club called High Table, which promises unprecedented access to government for £200,000, and agrees to be the brown face of ‘Britain Is Open for Business’ if the government will help to bury the headlines about Imij. Zahra, learning this, responds by sleeping with Hammad, who has conveniently resurfaced in London. He turns out to be abysmal in bed. Having made a homophobic slur about Maryam, he declares that not raping the girls in 1988 made Jimmy and him ‘the last gentlemen in Karachi’.
After this, the dominoes begin to fall. The next day, Hammad brings Jimmy, who is seeking advice on civil liberties, to Zahra’s office. Maryam takes her revenge on him, and then accuses Zahra of sending her to do the dirty work, and of acting ‘sanctimonious’, ‘so fucking superior’. She says it was Zahra’s fault she was sent away to boarding school. ‘You’re the reason I lost everything,’ she yells, sweeping a hand in a gesture that encompasses her Primrose Hill flat, sends a wine glass flying and makes her dog howl. A degree of melodrama is inevitable in an argument between old friends, but it’s hard to pull off a scene where someone whispers ‘A part of me has always hated you’ into her best friend’s ear. We’ve known that since the very start of the book.
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