Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie

It’s been seven years since I read Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone and although I did find it interesting and always intended to try more of her work, until I picked up Best of Friends earlier this month it had remained the only one of her books I’d read. I knew almost as soon as I started to read Best of Friends that it was going to be my favourite of the two novels as I felt an immediate connection with the characters that I didn’t in the other book.

Best of Friends is the story of a female friendship and how it endures, changes and evolves over a period of forty years. We first meet Zahra Ali and Maryam Khan as teenage girls in Karachi, Pakistan in 1988. The two come from very different backgrounds – Maryam has had a sheltered and privileged childhood and as her grandfather’s favourite, she expects to one day inherit the family business, Khan Leather. Zahra, on the other hand, is the daughter of a television cricket commentator who has found himself under suspicion for refusing to support General Zia’s military dictatorship. As a result, Zahra works hard at school and tries to stay out of trouble. Despite their different family lives and priorities, the two girls have become very close friends.

I loved the first half of the book; I’ve read very little about Pakistan during that period and I enjoyed getting to know the two girls and watching them go about their daily lives. The fourteen-year-old Maryam and Zahra have the same hopes, dreams, concerns and problems that many young women will be able to relate to, whenever and wherever they grew up – the changes in their bodies with the onset of puberty, their first relationships with boys, worries over homework and exams, and finding small ways to rebel against their parents. The political situation in Pakistan is also explored, culminating in the 1988 election victory of Benazir Bhutto. It is during a party celebrating this democratic triumph that Zahra and Maryam experience a terrifying incident that changes the course of their lives.

The novel then jumps forward by three decades to 2019 and we discover that Zahra and Maryam are both now living in London where they have each become hugely successful in their chosen careers. They are still best friends but have found themselves at opposite ends of the UK political spectrum with opposing views on topics like immigration, technology and government surveillance. These tensions increase when a figure from their past comes back into their lives and we begin to wonder whether their friendship can survive.

The second half of the book didn’t interest me as much as the first. The 1980s Pakistan setting felt much more vivid and real to me than the modern day London one did and I found both characters more likeable as teenagers than they were as the adults they became. It also seemed to me that some of the situations Shamsie put them in were deliberately contrived in order to create conflict between them, rather than things that would have arisen naturally. Still, I liked the ending, which I found both ambiguous and believable, and I was intrigued by the central idea that perhaps when we’ve known someone all our lives we still see them as the person they used to be instead of the person they are now.

Have you read anything by Kamila Shamsie? Which of her books should I read next?

19 thoughts on “Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie

  1. Lory says:

    I read Home Fire (a personal recommendation to me by Deb of The Book Stop) and I do recommend that, although I also found some parts a bit contrived. There is at times the need to make a political point that overwhelms the reality of the characters. However, it definitely brings out some issues that need to be heard, and the transformation of Antigone was quite ingenious.

    • Helen says:

      I found the same with this book – I felt that the second half became too concerned with putting across a political message at the expense of the characters. I did enjoy it, though, and I like the sound of Home Fire so will think about reading that one next.

  2. Laura says:

    I really liked this one! As others have said, the obvious next choice is Home Fire which is much closer to this one than A God in Every Stone (or Burnt Shadows), both of which I struggled with.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you liked this one too! I did enjoy it, although the first half worked better for me than the second. Sorry to hear you struggled with Burnt Shadows, but I’ll definitely consider reading Home Fire.

  3. heavenali says:

    I finished this last week. I am a big fan of Kamila Shamsie and have read all her novels. I also loved the Pakistan section, and thought the second half of the narrative slowed down a bit. Overall I really enjoyed it, but my favourites by her are Home Fire and Burnt Shadows.

  4. Liz Dexter says:

    I like your last paragraph: yes, that does come up in discussions of older friends. I enjoyed both parts of the novel; I felt they both came alive in different ways, and I liked the internal conflicts in the women’s lives now. I have read Salt and Saffron, too, by the way, and I reviewed it saying it was interesting and enjoyable but that was in 2005ish and I don’t remember much about it!

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed Salt and Saffron even if you can’t remember much about it now. A few people have mentioned liking that one so I’ll look out for it!

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