The Most Precious Substance on Earth

Shashi Bhat's dedication for her potent second novel, The Most Precious Substance on Earth, speaks volumes: "For the girls who stay quiet." Turn the page to an epigraph from Sophocles: "Silence is a woman's best garment." Bhat's protagonist--a Canadian of Indian background like herself--dons that quietude early, never quite shaking the reticence well into her adulthood.

Nina is a typical enough teenager in late-1990s Halifax, Nova Scotia. She's an only child; she tries mostly to ignore her parents who seem to spend their free time praying and singing in their basement "god room." She's in high school and has a best friend, Amy. To impress her English teacher, Nina decides to read his favorite epic poem, Beowulf. Her Mr. M obsession inspires "a new hobby: interacting with pedophiles in internet chatrooms... one pedophile in particular." The virtual danger proves to be far less threatening than the monster in the classroom. Nina doesn't tell Amy, she won't tell her parents, she can't tell anyone. Quiet defines her life. After college, she enters an MFA program at Johns Hopkins, but she returns home to her parents without her degree. She next resurfaces as an English teacher but triggering circumstances also truncate that career.

Bhat (The Family Took Shape) divides her novel into two sections--high school and after--and 13 chapters that could easily stand individually as satisfying short stories. Savvy readers will realize early that Bhat's narrative is no easy read, but committed audiences will also parse, appreciate and retain what Nina has curated as "a gallery of only good things." --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

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