Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie review – Karachi to London

A friendship is charted from girlhood to middle age, in this admirably thorny novel of postcolonial adolescence and contemporary politics

Literary genres age, much as people do. Postcolonial literature – PoCo to friends – was once an angry young outsider leading the charge against empire. Now, much older and having made some money, PoCo seems to have compromised with the world, depicting chic, transnational lives jetting between humid capital cities and the glamorous locales of New York and London. Invariably educated at Oxbridge and the Ivy League, the characters pursue comfortable careers in politics, the media and, almost always, high finance. After a radical youth, it seems, PoCo has put away the placards and started to indulge capitalism.

So say many of PoCo’s former admirers. James Wood, glossing the position of those critics, describes the contrast they see between such “smoothly global” literature and “thorny” novels full of “sharp local particularities”, asking why anyone wouldn’t read “Elena Ferrante over Kamila Shamsie”? The Pakistani-born novelist’s new book is an opportunity to examine that contention, since Best of Friendshas much the same premise as Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet: a friendship charted from girlhood to middle age, taking in education, puberty, sex, ideological conflicts, personal rivalries, intimate secrets – all transcribed, however, to one of those “global” contexts.

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