You don’t have to read past the opening pages of Kamila Shamsie’s new novel to figure out the theme. Zahra, the daughter of a popular cricket broadcaster in 1980s Karachi, thinks that American movies seldom focus on female friendships, that these relationships often unfold as “a subplot to romance, never the heart of the story”. Shamsie, by contrast, is preoccupied with the platonic bond between Zahra and her classmate Maryam, the scion of a post-partition business family. We see them first as uncertain teenagers in Pakistan, hanging out after school in each other’s houses, chatting for hours about their furtive romances, their future lives. Thirty years later, the two of them are comfortably ensconced among the post-Brexit London elite. They go for long walks on Primrose Hill together on Sundays and hang out at each other’s plush apartments after work, still talking about the same things, really.
Shamsie portrays their bond as an alliance of opposites, but their individual backgrounds seem pretty adjacent. Maryam’s parents can afford to spend their summers shopping in London, while Zahra’s parents – her mother is a school principal – must turn up for their decently paying jobs in Karachi during her term breaks. The two girls attend the same expensive school, listen to the same music (George Michael, Tracy Chapman) and briefly fancy the same boy at 14. Later in life, Zahra becomes the leader of a well-known civil liberties group in the UK and is often photographed at events with Annie Lennox and while watching “cricket with Malala at Lord’s”.
Maryam is a startup investor, part of a shadowy cabal of capitalists who trade favours with the same government that Zahra and her organisation is determined to hold to account. Shamsie makes much of the fact that Zahra gets profiled by the Guardian, while Maryam’s press interviews are too low-key to show up on a Google search. Maryam is happily married and a parent to a three-year old; Zahra is happily divorced and the “fourth member” in her bestie’s home setup. For much of the novel, the relative absence of strife only underlines the fact that theirs is more a companionship of equals.
Shamsie adroitly captures the self-consciousness of girls at 14, how they come to terms with the inevitability of their changing bodies, how the starkness of their approaching adulthood is something they see reflected in the eyes of men leering shamelessly in public. Maryam calls this sensation “girlfear”: the feeling that instinctively teaches her to avoid certain streets in Karachi and London after dark, the grim knowledge that just because the man standing next to her is a friend of a friend – or, in one astonishing scene, the elected prime minister of a country – doesn’t mean he won’t make a pass.
And yet you can’t help feeling that Best of Friends is an evasive novel, where the characters sometimes spout performative inanities – “Adulthood is so complicated,” Zahra enlightens Maryam at one point, and 200 pages later, after an argument as adults: “A part of me has always hated you” – and everything turns out well enough for the protagonists in scene after scene, despite all that could have gone wrong. The years when their lives might have radically diverged – Zahra first arrived in the UK alone on a scholarship to Cambridge, while Maryam’s parents sold off their factory in Karachi and moved to Britain when she was 15 – are dispensed with in neat backstories.
We’re told that as schoolgirls they exchanged “notes over the summer” after a break and in London they frequently meet up for “soul-piercing conversations”. The reader, however, is never quite privy to these intimate chats. Shamsie seems more interested in describing their Sunday walks, or the decor of their London flats, or having a younger Maryam complain about the security arrangements in her parents’ gated Karachi mansion. As Virginia Woolf pointed out in her 1924 essay Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, just because a novelist has imagined a house, it doesn’t always follow that “there must be a person living there”. The view out of a character’s apartment window, the geography of her neighbourhood, can tell you only so much about the drama of her life.
Zahra and Maryam agree that friendship is all about those “shared subtexts no one else could discern”. I found myself wishing that Shamsie, too, would adopt the reader as a friend and trust us sometimes to get her point. Towards the beginning of the novel, we learn that Maryam “knew her parents’ money would pave the way into some university or another.” Does a 14-year-old really know this? Or is this something Shamsie wants us to know? The writing can veer into adspeak: Maryam’s family car is the “sleekest of sleeks”, her school in Karachi is “prestigious”. For Zahra’s father, cricket journalism isn’t “merely his profession, but also his calling”.
Much like a protective parent, Shamsie goes out of her way to make sure her characters are spared any lasting consequences of their actions. Hours after Zahra’s father disobeys a diktat from Pakistan’s then military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, the dictator conveniently dies in a plane crash. Inside a detention centre in London, Zahra comes face to face with the plight of an Afghan acquaintance whose application for indefinite leave to remain has been refused. But the grief of a man separated from his wife and children serves as the backdrop to a climactic dispute between the lead characters, a dispute that should have frankly come to pass 30 years ago. Shamsie doesn’t seem to realise what Zahra grasps at 14: a subplot is often more compelling than the main story.
• Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie is published by Bloomsbury Circus (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply