In her critically acclaimed second novel, Salt and Saffron (2000), Kamila Shamsie followed an idealistic young Pakistani woman as she discovered that class and lineage cannot be ignored as easily as one might believe. Again in Kartography, Shamsie takes a hard look at the impact of historical events on even the best-intentioned people.
During their childhood, Raheen is as close to Karim as if he were her twin brother, rather than the only son of her parents’ best friends. Although she knows that Karim’s mother, a Bengali, was once engaged to her father, Raheen assumes that what they refer to as the “fiancée swap” was of no great importance. When as teenagers Raheen and Karim seem romantically interested in each other, their parents hope that some day they will marry.
However, the friends are separated when, after another outbreak of violence in Karachi, Karim’s parents take him to safety in London. Although Raheen keeps Karim informed about her life in Karachi and at her American college, Karim seems indifferent or hostile toward her. He becomes obsessed with what he calls “kartography,” as if by mapping his world, he could gain some control over his own fate.
Finally Raheen finds out what has driven Karim away from her, his discovery that her father broke off with his mother because she was a Bengali. At first Raheen wants nothing more to do with her father; however, she finally forgives him. The novel ends with Raheen and Karim together as they were meant to be. However, there is nothing sentimental about Kartography.
The chief merit of this impressive work is its realism. Kamila Shamsie reveals the weaknesses in some of her most appealing characters, the personal flaws that explain how a family or a country can be devoured by prejudice and factionalism, while at the same time she asserts her sincere belief in the redemptive power of love.