A tale of identity (personal and political) and the ties of friendship over forty years, Best of Friends was surprisingly chosen as one of the best books of 2022 by, among others, The Guardian, The Observer and The Financial Times.
Told in a split time frame in two parts – 1988 Pakistan and present day London – Shamsie’s novel presents best friends Maryam and Zahra. As 14 year olds in Karachi, they are already besties of a decade and share a love for George Michael, a blooming curiosity in boys and a determination to be successful in their lives. For the wealthy Maryam, favoured over her father by the entrepreneurial grandfather, there is little question as to her road to success. The family leather business is hers for the taking. And in modern day Pakistan, with Benazir Bhutto poised to become the first female prime minister, Maryam’s future is not so absurd a prospect in the traditional male domain.
Zahra’s future is not so assured – but with a likely Cambridge scholarship on the cards, she can succeed through academic prowress and support from her comfortable middle-class parents – a cricket journalist and school principal.
With change in the air, the atmosphere in Karachi is electric. But a decision to attend a party results in the world of the two teenage girls changing forever.
Thirty years later, Maryam and Zahra remain friends but, now living in London, their lives failed to follow the expected path – certainly for Maryam. Packed off to boarding school in the UK shortly after the infamous incident at the party and the family business sold thereafter, Maryam’s path to success proved to be a little more arduous. But a success she is in the world of finance and startups. Zahra has also succeeded in the public sector and heads a London-based NGO. They remain friends, bound together by loyalties and shared memories of the past.
Two influential women both moving in the corridors of power. But when the past finally catches up with them, a rash decision by Zahra threatens the very basis of the women’s friendship.
Best of Friends is a fairly well written tale, but one full of safe platitudes. The reader is rarely allowed under the skin of the two protagonists – it’s more surface explanation than in-depth exploration. There’s little in terms of the gap between the two timeframes and why the two have remained friends. We’re simply told that that is the case. Considering Shamsie’s novel is exploring the very nature of friendship, we need more. Ultimately, Best of Friends is a disappointment: safe in a cosy, unchallenging way – even the reveal of Maryam’s sexuality and home life is a suburban extension of the novel’s underwhelming lack of tension.