‘Best of Friends’ by Kamila Shamsie

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.

Booker Prize Shortlist: 2017

2017 represents only the third occasion whereby I have read all shortlisted novels for the Booker Prize. And, as with 2016 and 1996, the question remains – from my perspective, did the judges get it right with George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo?

Controversy had (as usual) reigned supreme when the longlist of 13 was whittled down to six. Where was Sebastian Barry and Days Without End? What – no Jon McGregor and Reservoir 13? What happened to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway and Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones? Instead, according to many critics, what was a powerful long list became something of a diluted shortlist.

The books that did make the cut were
Paul Auster 4, 3, 2 1
Emily Fridlund History of Wolves
Mohsin Hamid Exit West
Fiona Mosley Elmet
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo
Ali Smith Autumn

Sadly, to my mind, there were only two novels that stood out on the list, both extremely powerful and both deserved winners of the prize in this year – and in many other years. But the other four were generally forgettable.

Her fourth appearance on the Booker shortlist, Ali Smith and her Autumn is, to my mind, the least enjoyable of the six. Expansive and inventive it may be, capturing the zeitgeist of current British world of uncertainty and inwardness, this short novel is beautifully written and deeply profound, yet, too often, deliberately obscure and pretentious. (50%)

Emily Fridlund’s debut novel History of Wolves is also beautifully written with haunting prose and a vivid sense of place, but its meandering narrative failed to ultimately engage. (50%)

I loved his The Reluctant Fundamentalist – but Mohsin Hamid’s ruminations on refugees and Exit West, whilst salient, engrossing, at times quite magical, is also somewhat odd – a flight-of-fancy that actually needed a little more grounding. The teasingly well written first third sadly becomes a pedestrian, off-kilter place (as opposed to time) travel narrative. (58%)

Elmet is a powerful debut novel set in Yorkshire – a dark tale sublimely wrought, a British gothic simultaneously pastoral and fraught with a sense of foreboding. But it trails off into the land of melodrama in its narrative as Fiona Mosley tries a little too hard to tie up all loose ends. (64%)

The final two on the list are streets ahead of the other on the shortlist – and are neck and neck in the running. Paul Auster’s sprawling 4,3,2,1 is a magnificent thousand plus pages of four versions of the early life/lives of Archie Ferguson. It’s an engrossing celebration of liberal ideology and a reflection on a generation that sexually, politically and culturally defined the end of the twentieth century. (80%)

But it’s pipped to the post by George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo , an ethereal symphony in its intimacy of grief and familial love. Structurally experimental, Saunders’ novel is a polyphonic narrative interspersed with short quotes from newspaper articles and biographies of the day as President Abraham Lincoln is struck politically inert on the death of his 12 year-old son. (81%)

A very hard call – but to my mind, the judges of the 2017 Booker Prize got it right as far as the winning novel was concerned. Not convinced about the shortlist itself, though.

‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid

exit westIn an un-named city swollen by refugees somewhere in the Middle East, Saeed and Nadia meet at an evening class. But not everything is at it seems – it takes Saeed a few lessons to pluck up the courage to speak to the young woman dressed in flowing black robes, only to discover she drives a motorbike, lives alone, smokes dope and is wedded to the phone and internet.

Their evolving love story is fraught with dangers as religious militants take control of various neighbourhoods in the city and executions for minor infringements of religious law are not uncommon. But as the violence and dangers escalate, so rumours abound of doorways randomly appearing throughout the city: to exit through a door is the path to a new life somewhere else in the world.

Exit West is addictive reading. Inevitably, there is a sense of familiarity as more and more displaced persons, via garden sheds, bedrooms, toilet cubicles, emerge all over the world. But Hamid’s world is set in an imagined near future. It is the story of the plight of refugees. But this is not the grim tale of terrifying, interminable journeys across borders or families holed up in tiny spaces as war explodes around them. Instead, as Saeed and Nadia travel through the portal, their experience is both like dying and like being born as they step into an alien and uncertain future. It’s not what they expect and they face both danger and joy.

What follows is a profoundly moving personal story of love, courage and, most of all, loyalty as the two face and confront the displacement of certainty and equilibrium around them.

But, whilst addictive, Exit West ultimately falls short of being fully satisfactory. The relevance of the novel’s first third and the beautifully written exposition of life in the un-named city as life becomes more and more untenable (electricity blackouts, random home searches by both militants and government forces, executions) loses out to a somewhat pedestrian, off-kilter place (as opposed to time) travel narrative.

Salient, engrossing, at times quite magical but also somewhat odd – the portals through which individuals place travel are never explained, a flight-of-fancy that actually needed a little more grounding. Shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, Exit West lost out to George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.

‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid

Reluctant-FundamentalistA rooftop café in Lahore overlooking the bazaar, drinking tea. Western-educated Changez talks to an unnamed American, telling him of his life story – a scholarship to Princeton, top of his class, snapped up by an elite global valuation firm. There appear to be no limits for the young, good-looking Pakistani. He thrives on the pressures of expectation and a potential relationship with the beautiful Erica promises the opening of doors into Manhattan society.

But in the aftermath of September 11, Changez’s world exponentially changes – and so does he. His relationship with the mentally unbalanced Erica shifts, his relationship with his work colleagues and his beloved America shifts, his relationship with his family shifts. And, ultimately, his relationship with himself radically shifts.

Talking to the stranger (The Reluctant Fundamentalist is, in reality, a monologue), Changez voices slow but certain changes in his attitude, initially as a direct response to the changed attitudes towards him. Like the slow reveal of his story as dusk settles over the city and the undercurrent of threat pervades the night air (just who is the unnamed American?), Changez’s disillusionment came about in a nuanced, progressive manner.

Now an enemy of his adopted country, there’s no political or religious grandising. That the story is a political allegory of the conflict of the two cultures and the iniquity of power and status, there’s no doubt. The secular Changez is the voice of moderation, a fundamentalist in the most fundamental way. But he is also looking for his own identity – he is a Pakistani angry with his country’s reliance on the US but also angry with Pakistani global politics.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an extraordinary achievement – a highly personal story yet infused with complex issues of nationhood, capitalism, elitism. Published in 2007, it is as topical today as then. Shortlisted for the Man Booker, it lost out (somewhat surprisingly, selected as it was by The Guardian as one of the books that defined the decade) to Anne Enright’s The Gathering.