Somebody Loves You
by Mona Arshi; And Other Stories (176 pages, $16.95)
Deliberately based in Sheffield, England -- away from the typical publishing centers of London and Oxford -- the publishing company And Other Stories aims "to push people's reading limits and help them discover authors of adventurous and inspiring writing," as well as to champion "stories other publishers often consider too risky to take on."
In both its form and its content, Mona Arshi's short, sharp debut novel "Somebody Loves You," about a British Indian family dealing with the mother's mental illness, is deftly adventurous and decidedly risky. Ruby, the youngest daughter and the perceptive protagonist, is about 11 years old when she resolves -- as a result of the various interpersonal, racial and economic traumas around her -- not to speak.
Born in West London, Arshi worked for a decade as a human rights lawyer before earning a master's degree in creative writing at East Anglia University. Her debut poetry collection, 2015's "Small Hands," won the prestigious Forward Prize, and "Somebody Loves You" feels like a book built brick by brick by a poet. Each chapter consists of a small, stand-alone vignette, some a few pages long, some barely half a page, all of them written in poetic prose with a careful use of white space.
Each one is titled, as a poem might be, with a word or phrase that lends emphasis to that section's images or themes, as in the one called "Playground" in which Ruby observes, "That is what it's like at that age, you are testing yourself out, how you can be cruel and amiable in the space of a moment, which is why playgrounds are such terrible places." Or in "Gardens," in which she states that "If you plant a tree you have to accept it will be somebody else's shade."
Ruby is dumb as in mute, but not as in stupid, even though some of her teachers and peers assume the latter to be the case. The way in which Arshi renders her observations is arresting, full of intensity and insight, as when Ruby muses, "They say you need to have clocked up more than ten thousand hours to excel in any skill. Not many young adults are experts at anything, but I think I am an expert in the art of solitude and quietness," adding, "It's something I've worked hard at and practiced and studied like a Venetian master glass-blower who can puff up a little bit of white-hot jelly-glass and transform it into a fruit bowl or a horse rearing up in battle."
Keen in both its humor and in its pathos, the novel captures the acuteness and anguish of childhood and adolescence. The people Ruby loves -- her long-suffering and perplexed father, her rebellious and artistic older sister Rania, and, above all, the woman of whom she explains, "Something on the shelf of my mother's heart died when she came to England" -- comprise just a few of the somebodies of the title, evoking Ruby's broken but radiant world, a place suffused with grim humor and sad, strange aching.