The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Book Jacket

The Most Precious Substance on Earth
by Shashi Bhat
28 Jun 2022
272 pages
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Genre: Literary Fiction
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Journey Prize winner Shashi Bhat's sharp, darkly comic, and poignant story about a high school student's traumatic experience and how it irrevocably alters her life, for fans of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Girlhood, and Pen15.

Bright, hilarious, and sensitive fourteen-year-old Nina spends her spare time reading Beowulf and flirting with an internet predator. She has a vicious crush on her English teacher, and her best friend Amy is slowly drifting away. Meanwhile, Nina's mother tries to match her up with local Indian boys unfamiliar with her Saved by the Bell references, and Nina's worried father has started reciting Hindu prayers outside her bedroom door. Beginning with a disturbing incident at her high school, The Most Precious Substance on Earth tells stories of Nina's life from the '90s to present day, when she returns to the classroom as a high school teacher with a haunting secret and discovers that the past is never far behind her.

Darkly funny, deeply affecting, unsettling, and at times even shocking, Shashi Bhat's irresistible novel-in-stories examines the 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... It adds up to a bold statement about the impact of a young woman's trauma." - Publishers Weekly

"An empowering and liberatory coming-of-age novel for 'the girls who stay quiet.'" - Kirkus Reviews

"A powerful, surprising and terrifying meditation on girlhood, as dark as it is funny. There is an Edward Scissorhands quality to Nina, the book's heroine; the power and accuracy of her insight cuts those around her, but none as deeply as herself. And yet, what a pleasure it is to be cut open by the knife of Nina's thoughts and the power of Shashi Bhat's prose. In The Most Precious Substance on Earth, all the best punchlines do permanent damage." - Rufi Thorpe, author of The Knockout Queen

"With language as lovely as it is razor sharp, Shashi Bhat paints an indelible portrait of the pleasure and pain of adolescence—and the scars it leaves behind. Like the young woman at its center, this novel-in-stories has a fierce voice, a soft beauty, and a huge heart." - Robin Wasserman, author of Mother Daughter Widow Wife

"Honest, hilarious, and profoundly affecting, The Most Precious Substance on Earth is rife with moments of such emotional clarity they made me gasp, and are still ringing in my mind days later. Bhat writes with such a deep understanding of the world that by the end of the book, I felt I understood it a little better, too." - Amy Jones, author of Every Little Piece of Me

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Madhuri
The structure of the most precious substance in earth
The structure of The Most Precious Substance on Earth was something I both enjoyed and struggled with throughout my reading experience. Bhat's book feels more like a short story collection than a novel, and this is a major factor to take into account when considering whether it would appeal to you. What I loved about the book regarding its short story presentation is Bhat's economical use of language. Readers quickly get a sense of Nina's personality, what she thinks about and the central conflicts she's experiencing throughout pivotal moments. Bhat encapsulates one monumental moment per chapter. Each feels like a standalone piece of Nina's life, its own story within her universe, linked to others thematically but not necessarily by plot progression...continued

Shashi Bhat's fiction has won the Writers' Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and been shortlisted for a National Magazine Award and the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Threepenny Review, The Missouri Review, The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, subTerrain, Best Canadian Stories 2018 and 2019, and The Journey Prize Stories 24 and 30. Her debut novel, The Family Took Shape, was a finalist for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. Shashi holds an MFA in fiction from the Johns Hopkins University. She lives in New Westminster, BC, where she is the editor-in-chief of EVENT magazine and teaches creative writing at Douglas College.

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