#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 Portable Magic by Emma Smith

Portable MagicAbout the Book

Most of what we say about books is really about the words inside them: the rosy nostalgic glow for childhood reading, the lifetime companionship of a much-loved novel. But books are things as well as words, objects in our lives as well as worlds in our heads. And just as we crack their spines, loosen their leaves and write in their margins, so they disrupt and disorder us in turn. All books are, as Stephen King put it, ‘a uniquely portable magic’. Here, Emma Smith shows us why.

Portable Magic unfurls an exciting and iconoclastic new story of the book in human hands, exploring when, why and how it acquired its particular hold over humankind. Gathering together a millennium’s worth of pivotal encounters with volumes big and small, Smith reveals that, as much as their contents, it is books’ physical form – their ‘bookhood’ – that lends them their distinctive and sometimes dangerous magic. From the Diamond Sutra to Jilly Cooper’s Riders, to a book made of wrapped slices of cheese, this composite artisanal object has, for centuries, embodied and extended relationships between readers, nations, ideologies and cultures, in significant and unpredictable ways.

Exploring the unexpected and unseen consequences of our love affair with books, Portable Magic hails the rise of the mass-market paperback, and dismantles the myth that print began with Gutenberg; it reveals how our reading habits have been shaped by American soldiers, and proposes new definitions of a ‘classic’ – and even of the book itself. Ultimately, it illuminates the ways in which our relationship with the written word is more reciprocal – and more turbulent – than we tend to imagine.

Format: Hardback (352 pages)      Publisher: Allen Lane
Publication date: 28th April 2022 Genre: Nonfiction

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My Review

Portable Magic is a fascinating, in-depth examination of books as physical objects, from their earliest incarnation as collections of scrolls or wax tablets to modern paperbacks and, yes, ebooks.  The blurb gives you an idea of the breadth of the book’s subject matter and this review would itself be as long as a book if I mentioned everything of interest I found within its pages. Therefore, I’ve confined myself to picking out a few things that caught my eye in various chapters.

  • Precursors to the paperback were softback editions designed especially for the armed forces that would fit neatly into the pocket of a uniform
  • Annuals and highly decorated gift books were the first commercial products designed to be given away by the purchaser
  • Book tokens emerged to alleviate the ‘stress’ of choosing books as gifts
  • ‘Shelfies’ have a long history with figures such as Madame de Pompadour being depicted holding books or with books in the background. Marilyn Monroe was famously photographed holding a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses that it looks like she’s a fair way through.
  • There is ‘a gestural vocabulary’ associated with handling books, e.g. turning pages from the corner far edge, using a finger or marker to refer to different points, flexing a spine to make it stay open.
  • Book burning has taken place for purposes other than censorship including as part of waste management, at the hands of a book’s author, for publicity or as part of a ritual.
  • As the case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover showed, efforts to ban books are often good for sales.
  • Books can have a talismanic quality. During the First World War, steel covered Bibles designed to be carried in the breast pocket were widely advertised as gifts for servicemen.
  • Bibliomancy is the act of opening a book at random for prophetic wisdom.
  • When we read a book, thousands of microscopic particles of our DNA rub off on its pages. ‘Inside each book, there is a miniscule, uncatalogued but carefully preserved library of its human handlers.’
  • E-readers, the author argues, want to be books. ‘Text is presented in vertical orientation (an e-reader is portrait, rather than landscape, in format), pages are flipped from right to left to move sequentially through the text and there is a facility to bookmark or underline particular passages.’

Those of us for whom books play a significant part in our lives will surely identify with the following passage. ‘We are all made up of the books we have loved and, more, of the books we have owned, gifted, studied, revered, lived by, lost, thrown aside, dusted, argued over, learned by heart, borrowed and never returned, failed to finish and used as doorstops or to raise a computer monitor.’

The fact that nearly fifty pages are taken up with notes and index demonstrates that Portable Magic is the product of extensive research. Although there were one or two points where there was perhaps a little too much detail, I found Portable Magic an absolutely fascinating read.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of Allen Lane via Readers First.

In three words: Informative, erudite, expansive

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About the Author

Emma Smith was born and brought up in Leeds, went unexpectedly to university in Oxford, and never really left. She is now Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College and the author of the Sunday Times bestseller This Is Shakespeare. She enjoys silent films, birdwatching, and fast cars.

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