The things we thought we knew is the debut novel by Bristol Short Story Prize 2014 winner Mahsuda Snaith.
It is the story of eighteen year old Ravine, trapped in bed by chronic pain syndrome. She spends her time replaying in her head the events that led to the disappearance of her childhood best friend Marianne. As she lies and ponders, life around her starts to move forward in ways she does not enjoy and her adolescent mind attempts to reject it, tries to resist determined efforts to send her out into the world
In the past Ravine and Marianne grow up on a run-down estate. Ravine lives with her mother, a strict but loving Bangladeshi immigrant. Marianne, and her brother Jonathan, are nominally in the care of their alcoholic, damaged mother, but in reality run wild until the arrival of their obese, shy uncle Walter. But despite his calming presence tragedy still lies in wait.
In the present, Ravine long since given up fighting her condition, struggles to make sense of this tragedy. Her reflections are partly driven by internal needs, the inability to forget the past and the inability to understand it. But partly as well they are driven by the re-emergence of Jonathan, with whom she shares a painful secret.
While she thinks the past and present start to come together and the horror of Marianne’s story cannot be avoided any longer. By the novel’s conclusion we will know what happened, but Ravine’s full acceptance of the events of her past is a struggle that must still come.
The things we thought we knew is an, at times, compelling debut, especially when it focusses on the childhood of its protagonists. Here Snaith draws the picture of a loving but chaotic childhood, where Ravine, Marianne and Jonathan have freedom but not necessarily the guidance and support they need. Their time is taken up with snail racing and pretending to be weather presenters. It is an affectionate portrait with that ring of accuracy needed to bring to life a childhood. The kids are just strange enough to be believable and their urban, manic, lives tell us a lot about the effect of upbringing on the adult.
Alongside this some elements of the framing present are interesting, for example the depiction of Ravine’s chronic pain syndrome, and some characters, Ravine mother, skilfully drawn. With present Ravine there is a gripping element to her relationship with her pain and her past. I enjoyed the idea that love is not only a matter of emotion, but of action and of understanding consequences.
Yet despite this, I found the novel ultimately disappointing. This is not because it is bad, but because it does not take risks. You constantly sense the writer pulling back just on the point of saying something radical, decisive and new. As a reader you’re willing her to go that extra yard, show some fireworks and daring, but she does not. Without this little something extra you’re too often left feeling flat, underwhelmed by the sheer competence of the writing.
It is a novel about childhood, so it that vein I suppose I could summarise this review with the kind of note found in a child’s workbook, ‘could do so much more.’
Mahsuda Snaith is the winner of the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2014 and Bristol Short Story Prize 2014, and a finalist in the Mslexia Novel Writing Competition 2013. She lives in Leicester where she leads writing workshops and teaches part-time in primary schools. Mahsuda is a fan of reading (obviously) and crochet (not so obviously). This is her first novel.
The Things We Thought We Knew was published by Doubleday on 15th June 2017.
To discover more about Doubleday click here.
Review by Joseph Surtees
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Read more of Joseph Surtees’s reviews:
Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall
The Owl Always Hunts at Night
Sherlock Holmes: The Counterfeit Detective
Mr Iyer Goes To War
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter
Impact by Rob Boffard
Hack by Kieran Crowley
Habit by Stephen McGeah
The Beginning of the End by Ian Parkinson
Read Joseph Surtee’s Interview with Max Porter below…
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