#BookReview Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie

Best of FriendsAbout the Book

Fourteen-year-old Maryam and Zahra have always been the best of friends, despite their different backgrounds. Maryam takes for granted that she will stay in Karachi and inherit the family business; while Zahra keeps her desires secret, and dreams of escaping abroad.

This year, 1988, anything seems possible for the girls; and for Pakistan, emerging from the darkness of dictatorship into a bright future under another young woman, Benazir Bhutto. But a snap decision at a party celebrating the return of democracy brings the girls’ childhoods abruptly to an end. Its consequences will shape their futures in ways they cannot imagine.

Three decades later, in London, Zahra and Maryam are still best friends despite living very different lives. But when unwelcome ghosts from their shared past re-enter their world, both women find themselves driven to act in ways that will stretch and twist their bond beyond all recognition.

Format: Hardback (336 pages)               Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 27th September 2022 Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

This was a book of two halves for me. I really enjoyed the first section set in Karachi in 1988 in which we meet Zahra and Maryam as teenagers.

Although close friends, there are already signs of differences between them: social, financial and in terms of outlook on life.  As part of a wealthy and influential family, Maryam’s future path seems clear, whereas Zahra’s future will depend on her gaining a scholarship through her own efforts.  And where Maryam tends to see things in absolutes, Zahra possesses a more thoughtful and enquiring outlook. ‘There were things Zahra wanted from the world that Maryam didn’t understand’. What they do share is a growing awareness of their own physicality and sexual allure. However they live in a society in which, as Maryam observes, ‘Men strode, owning the world. Women walked with smaller steps, watched and watchful’.  The event that occurs after a party may seem relatively trivial to us but it has serious repercussions for Maryam and Zahra, a shameful breach of social conventions. It changes the path Maryam has confidently expected her life to take and also sows a little seed of resentment about Zahra’s role in how events played out that evening. For Zahra, the feeling of terror she experienced is an unwelcome reminder of the fears she has for her father’s safety from the dictatorial government of General Zia.

The politics of Pakistan play an interesting role in this part of the book. The death of General Zia in a plane crash relieves Zahra’s fears for her family but also gives her a sense of empowerment and of new possibilties as a result of the election of Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister. ‘She’d felt different since Benazir’s inauguration. A woman was in power.’

Teenage Maryam asks Zahra, ‘What do you think we’ll be doing at forty?’ The second part of the book, set in London in 2019, answers that question. Two newspaper interviews with each woman describe events in their life in the intervening years. Maryam, a millionaire at 26, is now the head of a venture capital firm with a financial interest in, amongst other things, a video and photo sharing application making use of ‘face tagging’ technology. Zahra, formerly a successful barrister, is now head of the Centre for Civil Liberties. Maryam is optimistic about the new (we presume Conservative) government. Zahra opposes government policies, including around the use of facial recognition technology. For me, the potential for conflict between them felt a little too contrived. It seemed strange they should have stayed friends given their views and values differ so fundamentally.  Perhaps the most resilient link between them is Maryam’s daughter, Zola, who is Zahra’s goddaughter.

When the event that occurred in Karachi all those years ago raises its head once more it introduces an element of drama. Both women seem to view the event as a pivotal, defining moment in their lives. ‘All that shame and fear we carry around from childhood.’ This felt an over-exaggeration to me given both women have achieved success in their lives subsequently. Their responses to this perceived new ‘threat’ are markedly different. Maryam’s response is to use her power and influence to rid herself of the problem using ‘older forms of justice’. Zahra’s response is rather bizarre, akin to an act of emotional self-harm. Confronting the issue and the way they have each responded to it, brings out deep-seated and long hidden resentments that seem likely to destroy the friendship for ever. ‘It was so easy, too easy, for each of them to draw blood; they knew all the exposed places, the armour chinks and the softness of the belly beneath.’

Early in the book when Zahra detects that Maryam has told her a lie, she observes, ‘A drift had begun, which would only grow as the years went on. Deep down they both knew that no one had the kind of friendship when they were forty that the two of them had at fourteen’. Essentially the second part of the book is the playing out of that drift, a rather slow playing out it has to be said.

Even if I wasn’t enamoured with the second part of the book, I acknowledge there is some great writing. For example, I loved the early scenes in Karachi which gave a great sense of what life there was like in the 1980s. And a scene towards the end of the book in which Zahra visits a detention centre for people refused leave to remain stands out because of the way it reveals the harsh realities of the UK immigration system and the malign power of political influence.

I received a proof copy courtesy of Bloomsbury via Readers First.

In three words: Insightful, assured, intimate

Kamila ShamsieAbout the Author

Kamila Shamsie was born and grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. Her most recent novel Home Fire won the Women’s Prize in 2018. It was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017, shortlisted for the Costa Best Novel Award and DSC Prize, and won the London Hellenic Prize.

She is the author of six previous novels: In the City by the Sea (shortlisted for the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize); Salt and Saffron; Kartography (also shortlisted for the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize) Broken Verses; Burnt Shadows, shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and winner of the Premio Boccaccio (Italy) and the Anisfield-Wolf Award (US); and A God in Every Stone, shortlisted for the Women’s Baileys Prize, the Walter Scott Prize and the DSC Prize. Three of her novels have received awards from Pakistan’s Academy of Letters and her work has been translated into over 25 languages.

Kamila Shamsie is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was named a Granta Best of Young British Novelist in 2013. She is a professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester and lives in London. (Photo: Twitter profile)

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#BookReview At the Breakfast Table by Defne Suman, trans. by Betsy Goeksel

At the Breakfast TableAbout the Book

Buyukada, Turkey, 2017. In the glow of a late summer morning, family gather for the 100th birthday of the famous artist Shirin Saka. It ought to be a time of fond reminiscence, looking back on a long and fruitful artistic career, on memories spanning almost a century. But the deep past is something Shirin has spent a lifetime trying to conceal.

Her grandchildren, Nur and Fikret, and great-grandchild, Celine, do not know what she’s hiding, though they are intimately aware of the secret’s psychological consequences. The siblings invite family friend and investigative journalist Burak along to interview Shirin – in celebration of her centenary, and also in the hope of persuading her to open up.

Eventually Shirin begins to express her pain the only way she knows how. She paints a story onto her dining room wall, revealing a history wiped from public consciousness and generations of her family’s history.

Format: Hardback (416 pages)             Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 1st September 2022 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Literature in Translation

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At the Breakfast TableMy Review

As with her previous book, The Silence of Scheherazade (which is still on my Kindle waiting to be read), the location of At the Breakfast Table is the author’s native Turkey.  Although set in the present day it involves events dating back to the 1920s.

The story is told from four different points of view: journalist, Burak; Shirin Saka’s grandchild, Nur; Celine, Nur’s niece; and Sadik Usta, Shirin Saka’s faithful servant and companion. Although the unfolding of Shirin Saka’s story forms a key element of the book, we never hear from her directly but through the narratives of others. The same is (largely) true of Suheyla, Nur’s dead mother. I confess it took me a little time to get the family relationships straight in my head partly because, although the book does contain a family tree, this wasn’t included in my digital copy. (I was also confused by Shirin Saka sometimes being referred to as Shirin Hanim until I got to the glossary at the end of the book and learned Hanim means Mrs.)

The author creates distinctive narrative voices for each of the four characters. Celine is all breathless excitement at the prospect of discovering her great-grandmother’s story, although she felt rather immature for the age she is supposed to be. Burak is more matter of fact and thoughtful but exudes a real sense of melancholy, mainly because of his complicated relationship with Nur. Sadik Usta tells his story in a restrained way, often referring to himself as ‘I, your humble servant’. His protectiveness towards Shirin Saka (which extends to a reluctance to delve into the past) and his quiet devotion to her, and the family in general, made him my favourite character.  Nur was a character I really struggled with. I found her self-obsessed and her treatment of Burak, toying with his affections when it suited her and discarding him at other times, difficult to forgive.

There is a lot of moving back and forth in time, with present day events being described alongside memories of (sometimes quite incidental) past events and the transition between the two not always entirely clear. This is especially the case in the sections told from the point of view of Nur and Burak. One minute they’ve just met, then they’ve broken up because Nur has married someone else, then they’re back in the early days of their relationship.

Between the four different narrators – and through the art made by Shirin Saka – we gradually learn about the early lives of Shirin Saka and Sadik Usta, and the source of their unique bond. It also provides a lesson in a period of Turkish history about which I knew very little and during which shocking events took place. Many of these, sadly, are echoed in events taking place in the world today: cultural and religious persecution, forced migration, extreme nationalism. Look, for instance, at what is taking place with the Uyghurs in China.

At the Breakfast Table is an interesting story of family relationships and exploration of the concept of intergenerational trauma. I also enjoyed the insight into Turkish culture (especially its cuisine) and history. However, the disjointed way in which the story was told and its slow pace meant it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

I received a digital review copy courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley.

In three words: Immersive, intense, affecting

Try something similar: Island of Secrets by Patricia Wilson

Defne SumanAbout the Author

Defne Suman was born in Istanbul and grew up on Prinkipo Island. She gained a Masters in sociology from the Bosphorus University and then worked as a teacher in Thailand and Laos, where she studied Far Eastern philosophy and mystic disciplines. She later continued her studies in Oregon, USA and now lives in Athens with her husband. The Silence of Scheherazade, first published in Turkey and Greece in 2016, was her English language debut.

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