Do you read with your ears or your eyes? More specifically, do you “subvocalize”: are you sounding these words out in your head as you go? I learned only recently that there is another way of doing things, a whole group of readers who can take in the sense of a text without ever really hearing it. In fact, subvocalization is considered the enemy of speed-reading; Techniques for overcoming the “habit” include listening to classical music while you read.
Over the past twenty-five years Kamila Shamsie has put together a body of work that is arguably best enjoyed with the eyes. Shamsie’s writing is intelligent, morally engaged, alive to cultural nuance and contemporary concerns. It just doesn’t sound very good.
It is easy to see why Burnt Shadows (2009) and A God in Every Stone (2014) both made the shortlist for the Women’s prize for fiction. Both are impressive grand-canvas novels that take in great gulps of history. Burnt Shadows is set in Japan, India, Pakistan, the US and Afghanistan, and spans the period from the Second World War to 9/11. A God in Every Stone Its follows eclectic cast from the eve of the First World War to 1930s Peshawar, via Turkey, Flanders, London and Brighton. You can also understand why neither book won the prize. There is plenty to admire – the confident, swooping narratives, the sheer number of interlocking worlds on offer. But too often the prose is basic and the dialogue purely functional. A God in Every Stone struggles with a convoluted plot.
Shamsie had an artistic breakthrough with the astonishing Home Fire, which finally won the prize in 2018. Compared to the previous two novels, the story line is radically pared back, following a handful of modern-day characters over a matter of months. Sophocles’ play Antigone provides the backbone for this contemporary tragedy of divided siblings, fractured identities and fundamentalism. For readers new to Shamsie, Home Fire is the place to start, though the opening section is a real barrier to entry, marred by maladroit exposition and clunky sentences. Miraculously, the plot winds you in. The powerful narrative is in dialogue with Sophocles yet absolutely its own thing. The interplay between the two texts builds to a stunning climax, a great gong echoing across the millennia.
Shamsie’s new novel, Best of Friends (her eighth), is also temporally contained. There are two sections – “Karachi 1988” and “London 2019” – and two main characters, Maryam Khan and Zahra Ali, the titular friends. It opens in the final months of the dictator General Zia-ul-Haq’s presidency of Pakistan, when both girls are fourteen. Maryam’s wealthy family live in a luxurious gated property and spend their summers in London. Her grandfather plans to hand his leather-goods empire directly to Maryam, bypassing her pampered, ineffectual father. He gives her such life advice as: “When you see the chance to increase your proximity to power, take it.”
Zahra’s background is financially more modest, but intellectually impressive. Her mother is a teacher, her father a respected cricket journalist and the anchor of a wildly popular new television program dedicated to the sport. One day a powerful brigadier visits the Ali house to lean on Zahra’s father. The message is clear: he must publicly thank General Zia on his program for his services to cricket, or face the consequences. After the brigadier leaves and Zahra’s father reveals that he has no intention of complying, Zahra is frightened and angry with him for endangering himself. The threat evaporates shortly afterwards, when General Zia dies in a plane crash and a newly democratic Pakistan becomes possible. This episode establishes Shamsie’s grand, if familiar, themes of personal idealism, civil freedom, surveillance and authoritarian statehood. For Zahra, her father’s incorruptibility becomes a moral touchstone.
Another key theme is women’s rights: what it means to grow up subject to patriarchal prejudice and “girlfear” (Maryam’s word for how the threat of male violence curtails female freedoms). Benazir Bhutto’s election as prime minister seems to herald a radical shift, but at a party on the night after Bhutto’s wearing-in, Maryam and Zahra find themselves trapped in a car with a menacing older man, uncertain as to whether they will safely make it home. The incident triggers events that conclude with Maryam’s exile to an English boarding school. She will never return to live in Pakistan or take over her grandfather’s business.
We rejoin Zahra and Maryam in London in 2019. Now in their mid-forties, both are high-flyers in their very different spheres. Following her career as a barrister, Zahra is now the head of the (fictional) Center for Civil Liberties. She is a vocal critic of the UK government’s “escalating rhetoric regarding the ‘excessive’ powers of the courts”. CCL has recently won “a landmark judgment in the Court of Appeal against the police’s use of facial recognition cameras”. In her private life the strongly principled Zahra kicks back by indulging her “proclivities” for dirty sex with unsuitable men.
All of this sets her in diametric opposition to Maryam, now a leading venture capitalist, whose tech investments include Imij, a video- and photo-sharing app with revolutionary facial recognition features. Maryam becomes a member of High Table, a cipher for the Leader’s Group, a Tory donor club. She will stop at little to ensure the success of her brand. Her home life, meanwhile, is idyllic: she has a devoted wife, a peppy ten-year-old daughter. Maryam’s loyalties are not to abstract ideals, but to the people she loves.
Despite these differences, Zahra and Maryam are still close. They meet every Sunday for walks in the park. But when a figure from their past reappears, decades-old tensions build to some complex intrigue and, finally, a long-deferred explosion.
The childhood scenes are examples of some of Shamsie’s finest writing. The author grew up in Karachi, and vividly conjures up the felt experience of the city and of early adolescence. Throughout the novel she is clear-eyed on friendship – on how close intimacy can run to hate. But in the second section the two women, with their matching differences, come to feel like illustrative examples. The schema is too clear, and too crude in comparison to recent, superior novels that explore how childhood friendships play out in adulthood. Zadie Smith’s NW (2012) and Swing Time (2016) come to mind. And it becomes impossible, then, not to compare these two direct contemporaries more generally, and to find Shamsie sorely lacking. No modern ten-year-old in a Zadie Smith novel would say, as Maryam’s daughter Zola does, that “the Prime Minister was a sadistic fapjack, an absolute pimple pus-head”. Without the scaffolding (the alibi, perhaps) of Antigone, Shamsie struggles, once again, with the end stages of her plot, constructing an overextended, overelaborate domino run that needs one too many nudges to reach its conclusion.
Then there are those sentences. Here is Zahra, sitting on a bench in Primrose Hill:
That part of London does spring so well, someone who she remembered only by the poshness of his vowels had said to her years ago, when she’d moved to her neighbor; she’d thought it a ridiculous statement at the time but earlier today, as happened every year, she found herself thinking, yes, it does! as she walked the pathway from the Hampstead Theater to the Swiss Cottage Library where the branches heavy with the season’s first blossoms called to mind feathered fans such as might have swished alongside Cleopatra on a barge moving down the Nile.
I thought of Boswell on Dr Johnson’s walk: “like the struggling gait of one in fetters.” I think this sort of thing matters more to some people than to others. I am a helpless subvocalizer, an unrepentantly slow reader. To me, turning off your ears seems tantamount to going to an art exhibition wearing sunglasses. But perhaps, if you can read for content alone, this novel will strike you as better than second-rate – a lively debate piece addressing some of the key issues of our day.
Claire Lowdon’snovelLeft of the Bangwas published in 2015
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