The Friendly Ones by Philip Hensher
The friendly ones – are they the curious but pleasant shopkeepers and neighbours? Or are they the so-called friends who betray?
The Friendly Ones opens with Nazia and Sharif Sharifullah preparing for a party. Their daughter, Aisha, is here from Cambridge for the occasion, at home with her much younger twin brothers, Omith and Raja. The Sharifullah’s have recently moved into a lovely detached home with a garden in an upscale neighbourhood, and today will welcome friends and family. The day of the party the Sharifullah’s meet for the first time their neighbor, a retired doctor. Hilary and Celia Spinster have lived in their house for 30 years, and raised their four children there.
The relationship between the Sharifullah and Spinster families is a complicated one. The lives of all will be intertwined in one way or another throughout the novel. There are the secrets kept from parents by children, and by parents from children.
Author Philip Hensher was born in 1965, making him of the same generation as his character Aisha and her contemporaries in The Friendly Ones.
The novel begins sometime during Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minster of England, and from there we travel back and forth in time a few decades before and after. There is mention of the memorable unusually hot English summer of 1976, and of the Montreal Olympics. There is also a mention of the wedding of Charles & Diana that so many of us watched in our pyjamas at some ungodly hour of the morning in the summer of 1981. All of these touchstones, and more, place us firmly in time throughout the novel.
Half way through the book we are taken back to East Pakistan, where Nazia and Sharif were born and raised. After post-graduate education in England, where Aisha is born, Nazia and Sharif return to East Pakistan planning to contribute to the country of their birth only to find the country plunged into a bloody civil war. As with all civil wars the Bangladeshi War of Independence has divided loyalties – there are those who are seen as freedom fighters and patriots - or as traitors and terrorists. There are both in the Sharifullah family. During this time there takes place a great betrayal that is alluded to throughout the novel, and eventually revealed to the reader.
As the country becomes more and more repressive and writers, poets and academics are murdered, it becomes too dangerous for Nazia and Sharif to stay. Fleeing to England, Nazia and Sharif return to Sheffield, where Sharif takes up a post at the University, twin boys are born and they all settle into British life, becoming more and more prosperous over time.
This is a great big book, and a great big story. I can’t possibly do justice to it here. In addition to Nazia and Sharif, the novel is the story of Aisha Sharifullah and Leo Spinster, and of all of the siblings, as time moves forward and the world changes. This is a story of diversity and assimilation, and also of those who only seem to assimilate and become the next generation of terrorists. There is history; there is love, and betrayal. There is prejudice and hate. There are those who behave with dignity and responsibility, and those who do not - fictional characters who are all too human.
Thanks, Philip Hensher, for a great read.