Review: 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. They're both in band; they discover pot. 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. At 14, her denial begins--mostly of her very self--but also all the conversations she never attempts with anyone else. Quiet defines her life. After college, she enters an MFA program at Johns Hopkins: "Why don't you contribute something to the conversation?" a caustic professor demands. Nina can't stay, returning home to her parents without her degree. She next resurfaces as an English teacher but triggering circumstances also truncate that career. Her latest incarnation at book's end affords her a voice online--for now.

Bhat (The Family Took Shape) divides her novel into two sections--high school and after--and 13 chapters that could easily stand alone as satisfying short stories. Several have indeed been notably, previously published: the titular "The Most Precious Substance on Earth" and "Facsimile" were chosen for Best Canadian Stories in 2019 and 2021, respectively, while "Mute" was a 2018 Journey Prize selection. Making its debut in a vocal era of awareness and empowerment, Substance might read like a dispirited outlier, and yet Bhat deftly counters with infusions of sly dark humor, healing opportunities and audacious joy: Nina's children's presentation, for example, of Rudolph/Santa/"Jingle Bells" via Bollywood remix at the annual Hindu talent show is a resounding delight. 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

Shelf Talker: Shashi Bhat nimbly confronts the paralyzing dangers of silence that girls and women face, in a compelling novel that examines the adolescence-to-adulthood experiences of her Canadian Indian protagonist.

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