Updated: Mar 14
The Most Precious Substance on Earth
Pub Date: June 28, 2022
Written By: Diamond Braxton
The Most Precious Substance on Earth by Shashi Bhat is a deeply moving, coming of age story about a young girl in high school who experiences a traumatic experience that shapes and molds her for
years into adulthood.
Nina is an Indian Canadian growing up in Halifax, Canada, and she has a major crush on her high school teacher, Mr. McKenzie. In the first chapter, Nina approaches Mr. McKenzie who suspects her feelings towards him and a traumatic experience occurs. This haunts Nina and shapes her decision-making and rebel behavior in high school up until she reaches adulthood. The second half of the novel focuses on how she moves throughout the world, trying to decide what career she wants to pursue. That’s when she decides to become a teacher, and by doing so, it stirs up her past, affecting her present and future.
I fell in love with this book. It reads almost like a collection of short stories; except it’s told in a linear timeline about Nina’s life. However, each story focuses on a span of time, starting from the year where the traumatic event took place, up until she has to a make a choice about her future. It was interesting to see Nina grow from teenage to adulthood and watch her make decisions, knowing what she went through. I felt like I knew Nina, and that we could’ve been friends if she were real.
There are too many pros. The language is simplistic, yet beautiful. At the end of every chapter, Bhat sums up message after message with metaphorical images that stay with you. Despite Nina being an awkward person who doesn’t express her feelings, it’s still easy for the reader to get attached to her and care for her. It’s clear to us that Nina is suffering and is trying to figure out her place in the world when everything seems so... confusing.
Nina’s parents were born in India and so they bring a lot of culture and flair to the piece, and I could envision her parents vividly. They were fun and wanted what was best for their daughter, even if they couldn’t truly see what was happening to her. Nina is a prime example of someone who is Indian-Canadian because while her mother is trying to set up dates with Indian boys for her, she’s watching shows like Save the Bell, The Bachelor, and Pretty Little Liars, wearing gothic clothes to match with her friend Amy, and obsessing over books like Beowulf.
English literature is a big part of Nina’s interests. Her fascination begins as an attempt to impress her teacher, Mr. McKenzie. However, after the incident, literature stays with her and brings her comfort. She goes to school for creative writing and even tries for an MFA but drops out due to being surrounded by people who didn’t understand her or what she was trying to convey. This is why she ends up taking an English teaching position for a high school, which unbeknownst to her, forces her to take a hard look at her past and see patters of similar behaviors in her own students.
So why did I love this book? Aside from the poetic language, modern references, Nina herself, and the instances of Indian influences mixed in, Bhat’s book is a reflective, emotional story. It pulled at my heartstrings, and it was so good I finished it in two days (it’s about 300 pages). There’s a lot to love about Nina. We want to see her succeed, to become comfortable with herself, to find confidence in the world. It’s easy to become attached to her, to want to protect her, and to support her through her journey. You can’t move your attention elsewhere, or else it feels like you’ll miss her make progress towards a better sense of self. You have to support her through the end because she matters, and her story is like so many others who never get to have their voices heard. It was an important piece, and raised awareness about adolescence and trust, growing up, and how trauma can shape our lives.
There aren’t necessarily any cons about this piece. But there are a few instances that can make readers uncomfortable if they aren’t prepared for what they’re getting themselves into. If you are someone who needs trigger warnings before reading then please read the next paragraph, if not, skip to the end because it may contain spoilers.
The first incident happens in the first chapter: the Mr. McKenzie incident. Mr. McKenzie commits statutory rape by having sex with her in his classroom. I will add, however, that the incident is not graphic in any way. I actually didn’t realize what was happening until after the fact and I had to go back and re-read it to confirm. So, no need to worry about full-on graphic molestation scenes. The other incidents are more subtle. Once Nina becomes a teacher, a boy student ends up stalking her, and putting her in a tight spot to react because he harasses her by asking questions that are her job as a teacher to answer. However, he pushes the limits and ends up further traumatizing Nina. There are also instances of sexist rhetoric by gross men that Nina encounters, however, I think the main triggers to be aware of consist of minor and adult relationships and statutory rape.
I loved this story so much because it’s one of those where you think about it days after finishing. Because of that, I have to give it:
4.5 out of 5 stars.
The Most Precious Substance on Earth releases June 28, 2022 and you can pre-order it through any of the participating retailers here (but we encourage you to use the shop local option)!