Unbreakable bonds

February 5, 2023

Two best friends meet their differences head-on to test the strength of their friendship

Unbreakable bonds


amila Shamsie’s recent novel, Best of Friends, is a story of two Pakistani women and their lifelong friendship encapsulating “respect, disrespect, loyalty, and morals,” as explained by Ali Smith. Inspired by decades-old conversations, Shamsie’s ability to weave relationships between women is intriguing, whether it is between sisters or friends.

Set against the backdrop of Benazir Bhutto’s era in Karachi, the protagonists, Zahra and Maryam, have been best friends since childhood, despite their vastly different backgrounds. From a wealthy family, Maryam is poised to inherit the family business, Khan’s Leather, a luxury brand, after a sheltered upbringing marked by academic indifference and entitlement. In contrast, Zahra comes from a humble background; her father is a popular middle-class cricket commentator affected by Gen Zia’s military dictatorship, her mother is the principal of a lesser elite school. The two study at the prestigious Karachi Grammar School, a Victorian institution once attended by Benazir Bhutto. The political climate of opposition to Gen Zia’s dictatorship sets the stage for their coming of age in the late ’80s. Zahra dreams of a better future, striving to earn a scholarship and escape the country to attend a prestigious Ivy League or Oxbridge university.”

Despite their differing backgrounds and beliefs, Zahra and Maryam have always been close friends. But a youthful, impulsive decision changes everything. Maryam’s relationship with Hamad transforms the dynamics of their friendship. As events unfold with the death of Gen Zia and Bhutto’s rise, the late ’80s and early ’90s bring gradual revelations that test the strength of their bond.”

Shamsie writes, “Perhaps that was the key to the longevity of childhood friendships – all those shared subtexts that no one else could discover. And perhaps shared subtexts felt even more necessary when you both lived far away from the city of your childhood and that was itself the subtext to your lives.”

Nearly, three decades later, both emerge as potent and influential women in their own tall standing, having carved a niche for themselves in cosmopolitan London. While Maryam has gravitated towards venture capitalism with ties to the right-wing government, Zahra has reached the pinnacle of the legal world as a human and civil rights attorney who is appalled by the same government’s treatment of immigrants and the rise of populism. The social media app Maryam owns has a facial-tagging feature that threatens the very liberties for which Zahra is fighting. This new-found power and influence affect their subsequent decisions, vengeance and ultimately their friendship.

When two disconcerting characters re-emerge, they are forced to meet these differences head-on to test the strength of their friendship and rupture the bubble of childhood’s innocence.

Both protagonists are strong, resilient characters, living lives on their own terms, fulfilling and rich, and yet dragging the teenage baggage that they can’t seem to extricate themselves from and which shapes the ups and downs in their bond. It has not only altered their perspective but also changed how they responded to particular moments with real emotions and thoughtfully-written supporting characters.

Shamsie has empathetically captured politics, culture, revenge, victimhood, betrayal, relationships and class divides. She stresses the permanence of early friendships, regardless of disputes, the friendship that endures nearly everything. Unlike Home Fire which left little to the imagination, Best of Friends is characterised by subtlety as a lot occurs below the surface – of their lives, within their memories, biases and sensibilities. It leaves the reader thoughtful and reflective rather than excited. It is a brave attempt at showing diverse tangents to immigration and national identity.

However, the latter half of the novel, where Zahra and Maryam are depicted as high-powered women, seems a tad farfetched and predictable compared to the fascinating earlier narrative, which is much more realistic and enjoyable.

Despite being slow-paced, the book allows the readers to absorb the liminal and subliminal elements depicted in the longevity of friendships. It forces us to wonder and reflect on whether we can be friends with somebody with opposing views.

Best of Friends

Author: Kamila Shamsie

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2022

Pages: 336, Paperback

Price: Rs 2,035

The reviewer is a  journalist based in Karachi.  She can be reached at Sara.amj@hotmail.co.uk

Unbreakable bonds