Saturday, July 2, 2022

"The Most Precious Substance on Earth"

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. Bhat 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.

Bhat applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Most Precious Substance on Earth, and reported the following:
On page 69 of The Most Precious Substance on Earth, the main character, Nina, is helping her best friend Amy dye her hair black. (They’re going through a goth phase. It’s the ‘90s.). While Nina fluffs the other girl’s hair with a towel, the characters recall the day they first met:
“Remember the Phantom of the Opera towel?” She snickers.

On the first day of Grade 6 music class, we’d been seated together because of the extremely unlikely coincidence of us both playing the oboe…

Then Mr. Miller gave a bitter speech. Amy does an impression of it now, furrowing her brow and deepening her voice: “The music program will be dead before you graduate elementary school.” He said things about funding that we didn’t understand, and then played a video biography of John Philip Sousa while glowering behind his desk in the back corner, under a massive Phantom of the Opera poster. During the video, Amy passed me a note that said: The Phantom of the Opera poster is a bath towel. I looked up at the poster/bath towel and realized it was true, and after class we discussed the possible reasons why Mr. Miller would purchase such a bath towel, and that’s how we became friends.
If I had to choose one page to best represent this book, page 69 wouldn’t be it. I don’t think it captures the book’s tonal range, its darkness and poignancy combined with humour. However, it does illustrate a few of the book’s characteristics and topics: nostalgic use of pop culture references, absurdity, female friendship, a hint of jadedness, stories about complicated teachers and about school music programs.

The friendship between these two girls anchors the first half of the book. Both girls will experience pain and suffering, and their paths will diverge in a terrible way. I think the intimacy of one girl helping the other dye her hair, the fondness of their recollection, the entrenched and goofy nature of their inside jokes, and the innocence of the memory make what happens to them feel even more tragic. These are girls who could have been lifelines for each other but weren’t.
Visit Shashi Bhat's website.

--Marshal Zeringue