2022 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction Shortlist
A humorous coming-of-age novel-in-stories and a sharp-edged look at how silence can shape a life, from the winner of the Journey Prize. A Chatelaine Summer Reads pick.
“But wait, what happened to the girl?”
“I don’t know,” I say. I don’t tell him that what will happen to her is what happens to every girl.
Bright, hilarious, and sensitive fourteen-year-old Nina doesn’t say anything when her best friend begins to pull away, or when her crush on her English teacher intensifies. She doesn’t say anything when her mother tries to match her up with local Halifax Indian boys unfamiliar with her Saved by the Bell references, or when her worried father starts reciting Hindu prayers outside her bedroom door. (“How can your dad be happy when his only daughter is unsettled?”)
And she won’t speak of the incident in high school that changes the course of her life.
The Most Precious Substance on Earth tells stories of Nina’s life from the nineties to present day, when she returns to the classroom as a high school teacher with a haunting secret. And whether she’s pushing herself to deliver speeches at Toastmasters meetings, struggling through her MFA program, enduring the indignities of online dating, or wrestling with how to best guide her students, she will discover that the past is never far behind her.
Darkly funny, deeply moving, unsettling, and at times even shocking, Shashi Bhat’s irresistible novel-in-stories examines the fraught relationships between those who take and those who have something taken. The Most Precious Substance on Earth is a sharp-edged and devastating look at how women are conditioned to hide their trauma and suppress their fear, loneliness, and anger, and an unforgettable portrait of how silence can shape a life.
Bhat (The Family Took Shape) balances humor and pathos in this savvy coming-of-age story set in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At 14, bright, funny Nina crushes on her English teacher and loses her virginity to him. While her parents pray to Hindu gods and goddesses, Nina hangs out with her best friend, Amy, cutting classes and sharing inside jokes. After Amy drops out and leaves home, Nina's life implodes: she attends college, but struggles academically and later drops out of a graduate creative writing program. After she finds work as a 10th grade English teacher, one of the boys in her class insists on carrying her bag and writes about her in a class assignment, which triggers the trauma caused by her high school English teacher, the complete details of which Bhat keeps murky until late in the narrative. The ending feels a bit open, but Bhat offers memorable prose (describing Amy, Nina narrates, "her hugs have a soothing weight, like an X-ray blanket") and does an exceptional job revealing the turmoil under Nina's placid facade as she navigates dating, socializing, and the downward trajectory of her career. It adds up to a bold statement about the impact of a young woman's trauma. Agent: Stephanie Sinclair, CookeMcDermid Agency. Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the book's title. This reviews has also been updated to clarify a plot point.