The Most Precious Substance on Earth

Grand Central. Jun. 2022. 272p. ISBN 9781538707913. $28. F
DEBUT Indian Canadian Bhat’s debut about the rocky coming of age of an Indian Canadian young woman is disarming, disquieting, and filled with 1990s nostalgia nuggets. Told in choppy, time-hopping vignettes, the novel follows Nina from her first year of high school, where she’s crushed out on her English teacher and trying to hold on to her best friend Amy, to her return to her parents’ house after a breakdown at a U.S. college creative writing program. The possible cause of the breakdown might be the casually brutal assault by the same English teacher when Nina was 14. This incident is barely mentioned, but it reverberates through all of Nina’s encounters with men, most of whom are awful, clueless, or at the very least “all wrong” for her. Nina’s wry observations of school, friendships, Canadian cross-cultural exchanges, and family dynamics elevate the story.
VERDICT Like My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, Bhat’s novel shows how life-altering and destructive sexual abuse can be. Unlike the protagonist of Russell’s book, Nina is less obsessed and broken, but damaged nonetheless.
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