“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that,’ Kamila Shamsie tells me. I have just admitted something you should never, ever say to the multi-award-winning author: I’ve told her I'm not a fan of George Michael. “And I thought we were going to be friends,” she adds, with a comical frown.
You see, friendship (and a fair amount of George Michael) forms the backbone of Shamsie’s latest work; Best of Friends, a novel spanning more than 30 years, two nations and one childhood connection which never falters.
It is Shamsie’s seventh novel and her first since Home Fire won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction; the latest in a long line of accolades and awards the celebrated author has accrued over her critically and commercially successful career. Typical of Shamsie’s writing, Best of Friends is ambitious in scope, taking in Karachi in 1988 and London of 2019, and yet intensely intimate in its focus. The political landscape of both these times and settings – one on the eve of Benazir Bhutto’s inauguration in Pakistan, the other in a Britain torn apart by Brexit – are seen through the eyes of lifelong friends Maryam and Zahra, whom we first meet aged 14.
“I have long wanted to write about childhood friendships – the people who know all your stories, all the different versions of you, and can still see the kid you were,” she says, before sharing how important her own lifelong friends – to whom the novel is dedicated – are to her: “There's no joke like the one you've been laughing at together since you were kids that no one else gets.” The narrative intrigue, for Shamsie, was what becomes of a connection like this, forged in infancy, if it is stress-tested by decades. “What does it mean when someone shows interest when you're four years old and playing hopscotch together and 50 years later, you could still be friends, even though you are totally different people as adults?”
Shamsie has been writing since her infancy in Karachi, which she spent happily in her very own literary family. She is the daughter of journalist and editor Muneeza Shamsie, the granddaughter of memoirist Jahanara Habibullah and the great-niece of the writer Attia Hosain. Since her first novel, In the City By the Sea, which she wrote in college but saw published in 1998, when she was 25, Shamsie tells me the starting point for any of her stories is a mystery. But for Best of Friends, it was the conflation of this desire to chronicle cherished and formative friendships and the events of 2016. “It was important, because between Brexit here and Trump there, there were so many people who started to say things like: ‘I can no longer have a conversation with you’,” she explains. “Families were falling apart, or friendships were fracturing, because it quite suddenly became no longer possible to navigate around difference, or a specific kind of difference that was becoming crystallised.”
Navigating difference is the central tenet in the friendship between Maryam, the daughter and heiress presumptive of an extraordinarily wealthy Karachi family, and middle-class Zahra, whose father’s beliefs put him in a political line of fire at the novel’s start. The girls' wildly different backgrounds feel insignificant at the dawn of the book, when class struggles do not seem as important as their united passion for their childhood crush (and Shamsie's own favourite singer) George Michael. Yet the subtle, unspoken lines in the sand drawn between these two girls, become the entrenched, unspoken accents of their adult connection. “We still don’t talk about class and privilege enough,” Shamsie observes. “For these two girls, they go to the same school, they think they live in the same world, but there are vast differences between them.”
The most significant difference is power – a focal point of the novel. Who has it, how does one acquire it, and how can it be taken away? Be it political, racial, societal or gendered, how these two women navigate their power is fascinatingly dissected by Shamsie. I ask if she deliberately set out to prove how mutable and circumstantial power can be. After all, her story tackles repeatedly the notion of how unavoidable everyday ‘girl fear’ is, in a narrative that shows a woman become President of Pakistan and her two female protagonists become immensely successful and influential. “Everything can change and nothing can change in that respect, for women especially,” she says. “But there are some things that are immutable, like the power that comes from privilege. Maryam is a character who carries her class privilege with her wherever she goes, no matter what country she is in.”
The second act of Best of Friends takes place in London in 2019. Shamsie herself moved there from her native Karachi in 2007 and has dual Pakistani and British citizenship. Her previous works, notably Home Fire, tackle the straddling of national and cultural identities, when the world is telling you that one necessitates the betrayal of the other. While her 2017 novel dealt explicitly, and masterfully, with terrorism, Best of Friends is an understated rebuke of the idea that a dual nationality is anything but an asset. “Too often, we are told there has to be conflict there – an angst, a split – but I don't think that is true,” she says. “No one is ever always the same thing. Human nature is not made to be static.” Home, I suggest, for the two women in her novel, is found more in each other than a tangible location. “That’s a lovely way to put it,” she says.
Home is, however, a contested reality in Shamsie’s novel. One which, through its latter act, deals explicitly with Britain’s immigration policy and a particularly vile – though fictitious – home secretary. Could it be a thinly veiled critique of the now-outgoing Boris Johnson government? Shamsie laughs. “I mean, I'd like to say that when Boris Johnson goes, this sort of thing will go, yes. But sadly, I don’t think so. A lot of the overt cruelty of things like the Rwanda strategy seem to be sticking around, and that wasn’t even happening when I wrote this book,” she says. “You always hope to make people think with your novels but I never like be writing a novel relying on headlines. I’m just often depressingly aware that the things you're writing about are going to get worse for a while.”
Shamsie admits to writing as a way of working out her ideas and frustrations. She “sees the world as writer” she tells me, and always has – not able to pinpoint the exact moment she decided to become one, but somehow always knowing that books were both her solace and her future. “I think my first ever book was written with a friend about dog heaven, as both our dogs had just died,” she smiles. “It had chapters and everything. I was so proud of it.”
For now, she is teaching (she is a professor of creative writing at Manchester University) reading (Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House is up next) and waiting for that mysterious starting point of her next novel. Perhaps she could release her childhood book on dog heaven? She looks comically aghast. “No. No one is ever seeing that book!”
Best of Friends is published by Bloomsbury on 27 September. Kamila Shamsie is speaking at the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall on 28 September.
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