How do you move on from the mistakes of your past when those mistakes have left you in constant pain and unable to move?
Mahsuda Snaith’s debut novel is the first I’ve come across that features a protagonist living with chronic pain syndrome (CPD). For ten years, Ravine Roy has spent the vast majority of her time lying in bed (her “life bed”, as she puts it), since almost all movement leaves her in constant pain. The Things We Thought We Knew opens on Ravine’s eighteenth birthday, when the gift of a journal prompts her to think back to her pre-pain adventures with her best friend and next-door neighbour Marianne. The novel follows two narratives simultaneously: Ravine in the present, as her mother attempts to encourage her to try and leave the house, and the past events that led to Marianne’s eventual disappearance.
There were certainly elements of this book that I enjoyed. For one thing, I loved Snaith’s charming descriptions of Ravine and Marianne as children, exploring the grounds of their council estate as if it were their playground. I also enjoyed the mystery of Marianne, and the extent to which it formed part of a larger chain of events initiated by her mother and uncle when they were teenagers.
Overall, in spite of these strengths, I felt that this book’s execution did not live up to its initial promise. My problem with The Things We Thought We Knew is not that it wasn’t good, but that it could have been so much better.
Take Ravine’s characterisation, for instance. She can be downright unlikeable at times, lying to her Amma and even manipulating her on occasion. Strange as it may sound, I actually appreciated these flaws: having dealt with the double hit of losing her best friend and being left in agony for a decade, you couldn’t realistically expect her Ravine to be a balanced, pleasant person. As I read, I increasingly felt as though she was suffering from depression and anxiety. When Amma starts discussing the future, for example, Ravine is panicked:
The words shops, courses, interviews float about my face like over-inflated balloons ready to pop. I feel an electric bolt of pain in my chest. I try to breathe through it. It stops.
Yet, in spite of heavily implying this, Ravine’s mental health is never explicitly discussed. Snaith leaves it up to the reader to assume.
Another issue I had with The Things We Thought We Knew is Ravine’s sudden recovery. Almost as soon as her CPD is explained to the reader, it inexplicably disappears – a mystery to both Ravine and the reader, as this miracle is never explained. Perhaps the pain was psychosomatic, linked in some way to Ravine’s deliberately suppressed memories of what happened to Marianne; as soon as she starts to think about her properly, the pain goes away, never to be suffered again. This is all pure speculation on my part, because the reader never receives any form of clarification or confirmation. Ravine simply states “I think I’m cured.”
This development seemed odd to me as a reader, as I waited for an explanation that never comes. However, I also found it deeply uncomfortable that the book sells itself on having a protagonist with CPD (literally – chronic pain syndrome is name-checked on the blurb), only for said CPD to be magicked away as soon as it becomes inconvenient to the plot; i.e. almost as soon as the present-day events of the novel begin. Representation matters; indeed, The Things We Thought We Knew offers great representation in the form of a female protagonist of Bangladeshi heritage as part of a cast of working-class characters. Yet the book, I feel, falls far short of fairly representing disability. CPD is used as a plot device, a way of keeping Ravine almost entirely trapped in her life bed for the eight years that bridge the past narrative to the present one. As soon as her disability becomes inconvenient to the plot, it disappears.
Both Ravine’s unacknowledged mental health and her unexplained “cure” lead me onto my final issue with the novel. [Spoilers] After her CPD disappears, she begins to hear noises coming through her bedroom wall. The adjoining bedroom used to belong to Marianne, who would talk to Ravine through the wall at night. In the present day, Ravine slowly becomes convinced that she is hearing the voice of Jonathan, Marianne’s older brother.
I’ll be honest, this voice was the main reason I carried on reading, because I expected its inclusion to explain away my other aforementioned concerns with the book. I was waiting for Snaith to reveal that Ravine was imagining Jonathan’s voice; that, with the disappearance of her CPD, this hallucination was some new manifestation of her suppressed memories rising to the surface; and that she is using his voice as an external motivation to drive her to leave the flat. It wasn’t. By some inexplicable coincidence, just as Ravine’s CPD goes away, Jonathan really returns to visit his dying grandfather. As with the miraculous cure, this just seems far too convenient for me.
Snaith, as I previously mentioned, is a debut novelist. While I am disappointed with plot elements of The Things We Thought We Knew, it is because I recognise that her ideas, and her writing style, hold a lot of promise. I look forward to seeing what she produces in the future, because I do think she has the potential to write a great novel – she’s just not quite there yet.