Painful mem­o­ries make for promis­ing de­but

The National - News - Arts & Life - - Front Page - Ben East

“I am Ravine Roy. I am 18 years old. I am soul­less.”

A young Bri­tish girl – born to a Bangladeshi woman who named her child af­ter see­ing the front page head­line, “Young man drowns in a ravine” (and de­cid­ing Ravine sounded nei- ther Hindi nor English) – is con­sid­er­ing her life.

She is trapped in a coun­cil flat in Eng­land as a re­sult of a chronic pain con­di­tion but finds her­self hyp­no­tised by the “rich mocha skin” of her phys­io­ther­a­pist.

This jux­ta­po­si­tion of black com­edy and ill­ness, mem­ory and place is neatly han­dled in Mah­suda Snaith’s de­but novel, The Things We Thought We Knew.

As a way of try­ing to process her ex­is­tence, Ravine be­gins writ­ing to her child­hood friend, Mar­i­anne. She re­mem­bers their hand­stands, their slug races and Mar­i­anne’s rather complicated do­mes­tic ar­range­ments – the tone, style and con­tent match­ing the com­ing- of- age novel Snaith clearly wants this to be. It means The Things We Thought We Knew will be equally at home on young-adult and more lit­er­ary book­shelves – which is not an easy balanc­ing act for a de­but novel to achieve. Snaith man­ages it by set­ting her book in a rel­a­tively re­cent past, which finds an easy nos­tal­gia in Com­modore 64 com­put­ers and prepa­ra­tions for the mil­len­nium. Ravine and Mar­i­anne’s broth- Mah­suda Snaith Dou­ble­day Dh44, from Ama­zon.com er com­mu­ni­cate via glasses pressed up against a shared wall, and the ca­sual racism she en­coun­ters is deftly han­dled. In the con­text of 2017, it al­most seems quaint.

There are, how­ever, some un­even sec­tions. The with­hold­ing of what has hap­pened to Mar­i­anne since child­hood is a frus­trat­ingly ob­vi­ous writerly de­vice to main­tain a sense of mys­tery and in­trigue, not least be­cause it be­comes clear that Ravine, as a nar­ra­tor un­afraid to re­veal al­most any­thing to us, ob­vi­ously knows the truth, given it is the cause of her chronic pain.

Talk­ing of which, the sub­plot about her con­di­tion goes from be­ing ex­pertly ex­plored via some par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive de­scrip­tions to com­pletely man­gled: Ravine ap­pears to sud­denly get bet­ter one day.

Per­haps that is Snaith’s way of sug­gest­ing that Ravine’s ex­plo­ration of her re­pressed mem­o­ries is her path­way to a health­ier fu­ture – but if so, it is clunky.

Snaith is a short-story writer and the way the chap­ters of her de­but novel are put to­gether, of­ten as self-con­tained mini sto­ries, makes for a snappy and re­mark­ably vivid read.

But this is per­haps not a book that will gen­uinely last once Ravine steps out of the es­tate to which she has been rooted for so long.

Still, she is an en­gag­ing, funny and per­cep­tive enough char­ac­ter to spend some time with.

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