Painful memories make for promising debut
“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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