Review: A slice-of-life novel both meaningless and profound
“The Most Valuable Substance on Earth” by Shashi Bhat (Grand Central) In first grade, Nina develops a crush on her English teacher. This is how “The most precious substance on earth” begins.
“The Most Valuable Substance on Earth” by Shashi Bhat (Grand Central)
In first grade, Nina has a crush on her English teacher.
This is how “The most precious substance on earth” begins. Author Shashi Bhat wastes no time with introductions or background because it’s all there in the universality of Nina’s hyper-specific experiences.
Nina quickly develops a fascination for the occult and other religions. Her parents may be from India, but she’s Canadian at heart, eating Timbits and Googling the Hindu gods and goddesses her parents worship. Meanwhile, her best friend, Amy, learns to spend her time with the boys and the weed.
When Nina finds herself in the classroom as a 9th grade teacher, there’s a clear parallel between high school and adulthood, both Battle Royales. Anyone can be an ally or an enemy under the right circumstances – a teacher, a friend, a parent, a student.
With the fluid suspense of a novel and the opening of a diary, Bhat’s writing is transporting as it pops from one major event to the next.
The vignettes reflect Nina’s growth through voice and writing style. The first few chapters use brilliant metaphors and bits of context brimming with detail. Later chapters are direct, describing the bare facts of events and allowing the heartbreaking pain of mistakes, failures, and regrets to live between the lines of the text. It’s hard to say which feeling is the worst – or perhaps best captured – but the whole novel is deeply effective and moving.
Heightening the novel’s relatability, the setting has a still strong sense of time and place. Nina’s teenage years are so 90s it hurts. Bhat incorporates technological advances and cultural changes as the novel moves from the 2000s to the 20s, the progression being a silent homage to the decades.
“The most precious substance on earth” is both profound and meaningless. True to life, there is no great morality. The book is neither tragic nor triumphant. Baht’s novel is a slice of life that will either ring eerily true or be a highly educational experience in empathy.
Donna Edwards, Associated Press