Review: A slice-of-life novel both meaningless and profound

“The Most Precious Substance on Earth” by Shashi Bhat (Grand Central)

As a freshman, Nina has a crush on her English teacher.

That’s how “The Most Precious Substance on Earth” begins. Author Shashi Bhat wastes no time with introductions or context because it’s all there in the universality of Nina’s hyper-specific experiences.

Nina soon develops a fascination with the occult and other religions. Her parents may be from India, but she’s Canadian to the core, eating Timbits and Googling the Hindu gods and goddesses her parents pray to. Meanwhile, her best friend, Amy, is learning how to occupy her time with boys and weed.

When Nina finds herself back in the classroom as a Grade 9 teacher, there’s a clear parallel between high school and adulthood, both dog-eat-dog Battle Royales. Anyone might be an ally or an enemy under the right circumstances — a teacher, a friend, a parent, a student.

With the smooth suspense of a novel and the openness of a journal, Bhat’s writing is transportive as it pops from one major event to the next.

The vignettes reflect Nina’s growth through the writing’s voice and style. Early chapters use funky metaphors and chunks of context overflowing with detail. Later chapters are blunt, describing bare facts of events and allowing the gut-wrenching sorrow of mistakes, failures and regrets to live between the lines of the text. It’s tough to tell which is a worse feeling — or perhaps better captured — but the entire novel is deeply effective and moving.

Intensifying the novel’s relatability, the setting has a consistently strong sense of time and place. Nina’s teen years are so ’90s it hurts. Bhat weaves in technological advances and cultural shifts as the novel rolls from the 2000s to the ’20s, the progression a quiet homage to the decades.

“The Most Precious Substance on Earth” is both profound and meaningless. True to life, there is no great moral. 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.

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