Affairs of the Chart
Bloomsbury £9.99, pp256r
Kamila Shamsie's deftly woven, provocative third novel is about marking territory, both of land and body. She channels her ideas through a narrative of childhood friendship transmuted into adult love, but there is nothing worn about her approach; it is radical in its refusal to soften edges.
Karim and Raheen, best friends since their mothers placed them spine to spine in the cradle, delight in anagrams, wisecracking and illicit joyrides in classy cars. They enjoy a hermetic, chauffeured childhood in battle scarred Karachi in the years after the civil war of 1971. Bloodshed is all around, but within their gated society Karim's problematic Bengali heritage is rarely commented on. Their close-knit parents, and assorted hangers on, are more interested in parties than political activism.
Shamsie's blistering humour and ear for dialogue scorches through their whirl of whisky and witticisms; Aunt Laila's chief concern is that a newspaper might carry the headline 'Socialite Buys Suppositories'. Punning, cricket and country clubs construct a chimera of England with more glamour than the real thing.
At 13, Karim discovers maps and realises that 'even seas have boundaries'. At the same time, Raheen examines an old photograph of both sets of parents and observes to Karim's father: 'Karim has your smile - but you don't have it any more.'
Here the innocent decadence ends. There is a darkness beneath the jubilation of parties and rouged faces and for Raheen it remains impenetrable. She overhears snatches of harsh conversation but cannot fathom their content; familiar voices have become bastardised and their soft cadences have shifted to a 'grating cacophony which belonged to them as much as the music in their voices'. Raheen senses that her parents have immunised themselves against scarring events from the past.
Her desire to chart the world ends with the extent of her heart, and her growing feelings for Karim; when a friend shows her a videotape of night lights shining from refugee camps, she believes them to be thousands of stars strung in a velvet sky. However, Raheen's lack of political curiosity does not couch a prejudiced soul. 'I believed that beneath skin and blood and bone we were the same'. Shamsie offers us a character both admirable and blinkered in her attempts to dismiss differing ethnicities.
This article was first published in the Guardian.
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