1337 Oboes and animal crackers

The Most Precious Substance on Earth
by Shashi Bhat

Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada (McClelland and Stewart), 2021
$24.95 / 9780771094965

Reviewed by Myshara Herbert-McMyn

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Shashi Bhat, editor-in-chief of EVENT magazine and winner of the Writers’ Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize, presents a standout piece of fiction in her novel The Most Precious Substance on Earth. Bhat brings this novel’s distinctive nature to life through her heroine, Nina, a thoughtful and curious fourteen-year-old moving through her adolescence and into adulthood in bizarre and often unexpected situations.

Nina’s story is important, no doubt about that. Is it a story for everyone? No, I don’t think it is. I’m not sure it was a story for me. I don’t regret reading it, since everything that I read expands my view of the world and of people. I think Bhat meant this story for different readers who will more fully appreciate its essence. Nonetheless,The Most Precious Substance on Earth is a gripping and realistic coming-of-age novel that many readers will find painfully relatable.

Shashi Bhat

The first section of Part 1, “Why I Read Beowulf,” contains a difficult and inappropriate scene in high school, and even though I could see what was coming at the end, I was unable to brace myself. It made me hesitate to continue. I’ll call the incident life-changing and leave it at that. Eventually I picked the book up again, hopeful that the rest of the story would move well past that episode in Nina’s life. Though it did move through many more complicated topics and situations, fortunately it didn’t return to anything resembling that initial scene. After finishing the book, I realized the importance of the incident to Nina’s life. It shaped her responses to future scenarios and gave her insight into the thoughts and actions of others, but some readers might benefit from content warnings before diving in.

As the story moved forward through Nina’s life as a teenager, I wondered about the brief reviews on the cover that rave about the novel’s hilarity. It didn’t feel funny to me. Perhaps I’m an outlier — but most of Nina’s life felt awkward. I agree with the other selling point of the cover reviews, that Nina’s life is so realistic to the experiences of growing up that it hurts. There weren’t many things that I could relate to in Nina’s life in high school other than Band and English, but many stories I’ve heard are painfully similar.

Shashi Bhat at the Old Hastings Mill Store Museum, Vancouver

I related to Nina’s life as a Band student. She played the oboe, whereas I played the bass clarinet. They look remarkably similar, so it’s common for one to be mistaken for the other. Nina talks about moments where this confusion happens — I recall having the same thing happen for me, but in reverse. There is a lot of pride in playing an instrument and it’s obvious that Nina enjoys succeeding at it. Being a part of the band is a special feeling that Bhat describes perfectly: “When I put my teeth back over the reed, my shoulders latched onto the rhythm along with everyone else’s. It felt like running suicides [drills] in gym class: a mix of endorphins and gasped oxygen, blurring into euphoria” (p. 42). Bhat perfectly shows the synchronicity of being an integral part of a complex whole. Participants feel true belonging in that moment.

Front cover (New York: Grand Central Publishing)

Later in Nina’s journey, I related to her on another topic. It surprised me because many of her actions were so far out of my comfort zone. After spending a respectable number of years teaching high school English classes, eventually things build to where Nina reflects, “by then I’ll have left teaching for good, without telling anyone the reason: I don’t want this kind of responsibility. It feels like a job for somebody both more and less human than I am” (p. 191). This insight resonated in my bones and jolted me out of the book. I attempted a teaching degree but realized a similar truth before I finished. I marvel that Bhat perfectly summarizes the true requirements for teaching in these two short sentences through Nina’s teaching experience and realizations. I couldn’t believe she had spoken my own thoughts.

I have recently begun copying out my favourite quotes, so I thought I would share my favourite from The Most Precious Substance on Earth. I laughed aloud when I read this one, about a suitor for Nina: “Nishant and my parents come from the same box of animal crackers. They might even be the same animal” (p. 58). It fits the description of her parents so perfectly and helps to characterize Nishant as literally being cut from the same dough — by the same cookie cutter, no less. The imagery is clear and conveys a perfect metaphor.

Take a chance on The Most Precious Substance on Earth. If it is your cup of tea, you’ll enjoy the wisdom of Nina and understand the hilarious and bizarre nature of her life. And if it isn’t, you’ll still have read a well-written and thought-provoking novel that will stick around in its wise speculations and strange and original descriptions.

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Myshara Herbert-McMyn

Myshara Herbert-McMyn is a book reviewer and aspiring writer living in the Okanagan. She runs the blog Lit&Leta. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing from Thompson Rivers University. Editor’s note: Myshara Herbert-McMyn has also reviewed books by Silvia Moreno-GarciaS.M. FreedmanSofi PapamarkoJohn O’NeillChristina MyersPaul Bae, and Ruth Daniell for The Ormsby Review. Previously, with her TRU mentor Ginny Ratsoy, she reviewed books by Roo Phelps and Tim Conley. Myshara lives in Kelowna.

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