Mahsuda Snaith’s The Things We Thought We Knew (Doubleday, June) is a considered début which grapples with themes of pain and memory as it follows a teenager’s attempts to come to terms with the traumatic events of her past.
Debilitating chronic pain has left Ravine Roy trapped in her council estate home for the past 10 years. She has also been living with the mental pain she’s been harbouring since the disappearance of her childhood best friend 10 years ago. On her 18th birthday she’s gifted with a pain diary by her mother, and starts to work through her pain by meditating on her past.
Though the premise sounds dark, the novel’s light and accessible voice provides a refreshing take on council estate life. Speaking over the phone from her home in Leicester, Snaith says that she wanted to represent the lightness, humour and eccentricities of council estate life. “I was growing up on a council estate in Leicester myself at the time when I originally wrote the novel. There were certain elements of my own life that I hadn’t seen represented before so I thought I’d have a go [at writing them myself]. Council estate life has been represented in literature before, but always in a very dark, gritty way. That just wasn’t my experience of growing up on a council estate: it wasn’t all doom and violence and drugs, some of the stuff I came across was quite comic, so I wanted to reflect that.”
Snaith cites Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as an early inspiration: “Even though it’s quite different thematically, it’s kind of all working class and very much still has the humour that I wanted to have in my own novel. It’s also about someone growing up in a restricted world.”
Snaith’s portrayal of the British Bangladeshi Ravine also comes from her own experiences. “I’m British Bangladeshi, and I never came across many books from that perspective. Usually if you do, the book is very much about being British Bangladeshi. While it’s an important part of my day-to-day life, it’s not everything. So I wanted to have a central character who was from a different background, but I didn’t want to make that the overriding theme of the novel. I’ve had the same experiences as Ravine of trying to make friends, trying to fit in, and I think a lot of people have.”
Snaith originally started working on the novel when she was 16. She came back to it in 2011, and while the core image of a girl in her bed “trapped in her own little world” was still a strong focus, later drafts saw Snaith cut out many characters and sub-plots to focus on her four main characters: The sardonic and sarcastic Ravine; her “very eccentric” mother, Amma; Marianne, the childhood best friend who disappears; and Marianne’s older brother Jonathan.
Initially, Snaith conceived of Ravine as being in a coma, but Snaith realised having such a passive main character wouldn’t be effective: “The original idea was that she’d be in a coma, which was completely unworkable - that is as passive as you can make a character. I wanted her to have a reason to be reflecting on her childhood, so when I came back to [work on the novel], I’d seen a documentary about chronic pain, and I decided that would be the perfect condition for her to still not want to leave the house, but have this reason to think back on her childhood.”
Ravine’s mother also became a vehicle through which Snaith could try to make Ravine a more active character. “It was tricky not to just have Ravine stuck in her own head. The Amma character was really important in that, because she was the force that kept things going. She really tries to get Ravine to change - she’s quite insistent that Ravine leaves her room - so she creates dozens of elaborate exercises for her. I used Amma to kind of push her along a bit and that hopefully has made the present day more interesting and has made more of a hook to keep readers interested in her present life.”
The past and present
The novel oscillates between the past and the present, with the past represented through Ravine’s diary entries. Snaith says that the structure creates a “nice balance” between Ravine’s everyday life now and when she looks back at her childhood. Snaith found the chapters that focused on the past less challenging to write than the chapters that focus on the present. “I kind of struggled structuring [the present-day chapters] and making it as interesting as the past. The challenge of writing about a girl who doesn’t really leave her room and keeping it interesting was quite a big one.”
There was a gap of time between Snaith finishing the novel and it getting published, so she is already “pretty much done” with her second. “I’m in a really good position: I don’t have that second novel hanging over me - it won’t be a case of having that second album syndrome where you’re worried about what to write next, as I’ve already written it.”
Snaith says her next book is about a homeless girl who embarks on a “Wizard of Oz”-type adventure from Nottingham to Skegness. “It’s completely different [to The Things We Thought We Knew]. It’s full of different characters in a different world. I’ve really enjoyed writing it. I have a two-book deal with Transworld, so I hope they’re happy with it. I still need to work on it and send it to them but I’m hoping they’ll be pleased.”