Best of Friends, the latest novel from Women’s Prize-winner Kamila Shamsie, explores the complexities of power and ethics within an enduring female friendship. Focused on two central characters, Zahra and Maryam, the novel considers questions of integrity, loyalty, and platonic love.
In an interview, Shamsie spoke of her desire “to take one of those friendships that has existed forever, and then put a lot of pressure on it”. She does this in Best of Friends through a nuanced examination of women wielding power and feeling powerless in a politically and socially unjust world.
The novel is told from the points of view of Zahra and Maryam, who attend an elite school in Pakistan and grow up to have successful careers in the United Kingdom. It explores the interiority of both characters, focusing on key moments in their lives at ages 14 and 45.
From the novel’s blurb, one might expect stereotypical elements in the depictions of Zahra and Maryam’s femininity and friendship. Zahra is studious and well-informed, with progressive parents who work in education and the media. Maryam is wealthy, sexually attractive, popular, and sheltered by her privileged family.
Significantly, Zahra is trusted by parents and teachers alike, while Maryam is seen as a wayward teenager upon whom Zahra is a modifying influence. These preconceived ideas set the path for the girls’ eventual separation and the trajectories of their adulthood.
To Shamsie’s credit, the interior worlds of Zahra and Maryam are thoroughly explored. The reader becomes aware of the ways in which the two girls overstep the boundaries of feminine clichés. Zahra is responsible in her public life, but has a propensity for recklessness – what she describes as her “proclivities”. Maryam, despite the way her body is read and desired by men, marries a woman and develops an interest in technology that belies her status as a “popular” girl.
Novels concerning female friendship often involve shades of ambivalence. Elena Ferrante, the writer of one of the most popular novels of female friendship in recent years, My Brilliant Friend, has stated: “Relationships between women don’t have solid rules like those between men.”
Like My Brilliant Friend and another novel of female friendship, Swing Time by Zadie Smith, Best of Friends explores how access to privilege and power, or a lack thereof, tests the bonds between two women.
From this perspective, Best of Friends is a highly political novel. One of its strongest features is its ability to tell a relatable story of female friendship while developing a strong social critique of the sexist pressures experienced by women, both in Pakistan and the United Kingdom.
Shamsie links the discrimination experienced by women, described by Maryam as “girlfear”, with the inequalities of class, racism, and neoliberalism. Both characters are conscious of the stranglehold that is placed on their desires as women. The ways in which they seek to wield power in the face of their vulnerabilities leads to the novel’s key conflicts and ethical dilemmas.
Shamsie’s award-winning novel Home Fire (2017) was a beautiful, haunted work, shadowed by the myth of Antigone and eerily prescient about the rise of conservative political figures such as Sajid Javid and Priti Patel. Best of Friends lacks some of the more powerful imagery of Home Fire, but has a deeper engagement with its characters. Without writing for a white gaze, it is unselfconsciously concerned with the lives of women of colour.
In her depiction of Karachi, Shamsie creates a compelling sense of time and place, evoking the city’s tensions and beauty without pandering to exoticism. She also gives a nuanced portrayal of Primrose Hill and North London as an area inhabited by class-privileged people of colour, who are able to wield the power of discrimination, but still feel its sting.
Political realities and ethical choices
Like Home Fire, Best of Friends is concerned with the ways in which affective relationships collide with political realities and ethical choices. Zahra and Maryam find the lives of their teenaged selves overshadowed by the broader political climate of Pakistan and the repressive sexual politics that permeates Pakistani and British society.
Zahra’s fear that her politically independent father will be hurt by the dictator General Zia is juxtaposed with her burgeoning desire for sexual experimentation. Maryam’s imperviousness to the political situation is offset by the attention her newly formed body brings her, along with a sense of gender-based threat.
Here Shamsie’s novel can be read as capturing Iris Marion Young’s concept of female bodily experience. Once Maryam experiences the physical changes of puberty and the threat of sexual assault, she realises that she is “a target now, her body a target”. She begins to understand
why men and women walked so differently, stood so differently. Men strode, owning the world. Women walked with smaller steps, watched and watchful. Her anger deepened into rage […] Not her. She would stride, always.
These intersections of gender-based discrimination and political violence define and dismantle Zahra and Maryam’s lives. They find that they are unable to understand the heart of each other’s character.
By the time the novel reaches its final conflict and betrayal, Zahra is the Director of the Centre for Civil Liberties, working against repressive British immigration policies, and Maryam is a venture capitalist involved in an ethically murky social media platform that is courting the UK’s Conservative government.
Zahra is increasingly repelled by what she sees as Maryam’s amoral nature. “Part of me has always hated you,” she tells her. Maryam struggles to understand what she perceives as Zahra’s disengagement from emotional connections. She begins to think of her friendship with Zahra as revealing the “unknowability” of another person.
Best of Friends is an affecting, tender, thought-provoking novel. It avoids easy answers to difficult ethical questions, peering instead into the hearts of its characters, revealing their flawed, self-serving, and loving natures. It tells a lively and compelling story, while keenly examining the mutability of power, the consequences of wielding it, and how easily the terrorised can slip into the role of the terroriser.