Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie review – Karachi to London | Fiction


Lliterary genres age, as do people. Postcolonial literature – PoCo for friends – was once an angry young outsider leading the charge against empire. Now much older and having made money, PoCo seems to have compromised with the world, portraying posh, transnational lives between wet capitals and the glamorous locales of New York and London. Invariably educated at Oxbridge and the Ivy League, the characters go on to cozy careers in politics, the media, and, almost always, high finance. After a seemingly radical youth, PoCo put away the signs and set about indulging in capitalism.

That’s what many former PoCo fans say. James Wood, glossing over these critics’ position, describes the contrast they see between such ‘global’ literature and ‘thorny’ novels full of ‘sharp local peculiarities’, asking why no one would read ‘Elena Ferrante on Kamila Shamsie’ ? The Pakistani-born novelist’s new book is an opportunity to examine that claim, as Best of Friends has much the same premise as Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet: a friendship mapped from childhood to middle age, through education, puberty, gender, ideological conflicts, personal rivalries, secrets intimate – all transcribed however in one of these “global” contexts.

The best friends are Zahra and Maryam, both from the cream of Karachi: Zahra the daughter of a cricket journalist, Maryam the heiress of a luxury brand. Both attend Karachi High School, a Victorian institution once attended by the likes of Benazir Bhutto, whose opposition to General Zia’s dictatorship provided the political backdrop for majority girls in the late 1980s, alongside another cultural Whitney Houston and Dallas.

Although the two girls come from the same background, Zahra is presented as having an “uncertain social position”. She is introspective and intellectual, compared to the wacky and academically indifferent Maryam, who is destined to inherit the family fortune. Zahra heads to Cambridge and pursues a career as the UK’s top civil liberties lawyer, while Maryam, who grew up partly in London, stays there to become a venture capitalist. The social media app she owns has a face tagging feature that poses a threat to the freedoms Zahra fights for. Nonetheless, the two are nestled in the same smart mix of celebrities, politicians, and entrepreneurs.

Zahra’s sympathetic social inferiority and commitment to justice can be interpreted as an idealized self-presentation on the part of Shamsie, also the daughter of a Karachi high school-graduate journalist. But the strongest index of autobiography resides in its bookishness and its sensitivity. In a beautiful display of the two, Zahra reads the dictionary when she informs Maryam that they have a “friendship”, whereas with everyone else it was “just a closeness – a relationship based on physical closeness”. Later in life, she feels torn between “Proclivity Zahra”, who fucks strangers in toilets, and “Suitable Zahra”, who seeks reliable marriage prospects. Her sense of self is mediated by words and her literary interest in their semantic possibilities.

All of this reveals a secret Künstlerroman – a novel about the maturing of an artistic consciousness – that hides inside what presents itself as another Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age romance about “childhood crushes and first kisses” set to a soundtrack of well-worn ’80s pop culture references. in turn a poster of George Michael – but they are also part of a subtle variation on a great formative experience for the postcolonial writer: the bewildering hegemony of Western culture in distant places. where it makes no sense.

In a famous essay on “extraterrestrial mythology” imported from Britain to the colonies, VS Naipaul recalls learning Wordsworth’s “famous daffodil poem” on a tropical island where no one has ever seen one. Shamsie’s pop culture references, far from worn-out nostalgia, investigate this bizarre experience. After watching a few teen movies, Zahra wonders about the inadequacy of her universe: “Without restraint, how could there be The Breakfast Club? Without prom, how could there be Pretty in Pink?For good measure, the girls also lament “Daffodils” (“Off With Their Bright Heads”).

Even as we are lulled into the recognizable rhythms and dynamics of a traditional English school, we are deftly reminded of the absurdity of this postcolonial situation. Next to the school’s brass bell are separate alarms for bombs and riots. Maryam is at one point amused to discover that the Italian for aunt is also a slang term for homosexual: the word is Zia, and it is striking that all of this is happening as Zia-ul-Haq invents the Taliban and Karachi, awash with guns, adopts the “Kalashnikov culture”. These are surely qualified as sharp local specificities.

The final part of the novel, where Zahra and Maryam are high-powered women in contemporary London, feels like a misjudged appendage to the earlier gripping narrative, a fall into fluid globalism. (Shamsie wrote much more interestingly about Pakistanis in London in Home Fire, winner of the 2018 Women’s Prize.) Here the novel loses its bite, I think, because the worlds represented – high tech, the judicial activism – are not the ones Shamsie knows to be indelible. like that of his alma mater.

Towards the end, in the novel’s only formal experience, newspaper interviews with both women are featured. Zahra, sensitive to the unreliable storytelling of ourselves, deciphers the lies, telling Maryam, “We all create our own story arcs, don’t we?” It’s when Shamsie does it herself, turning the gripping facts of her life into fiction, that Best of Friends is admirably the thorniest.

Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.

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