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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi review: this gorgeous debut novel is a lesson in sensitivity

Mona Arshi’s first poetry collection, Small Hands, won a Forward Prize in 2015. Her debut novel shares many of its virtues: a crispness of phrase, for instance, and an eye for the sensuality of nature – animals, in particular. Somebody Loves You resembles a short story collection: each of its chapters is brief and titled, and the chronology foxtrots around.

One day, while she’s at primary school, Ruby decides she’ll no longer speak. Cleaving to her silence, year upon year, despite many an adult’s request, she tells only us about her life, both domestic and imaginary. She charts the difficulties of her British-Indian home: a mother suffering from mental illness; a sister discovering emotions and men; a father vying to hold things in balance, or check.

Arshi’s descriptions are feats of compression: sentence by patient sentence, Ruby distils her world. One teacher, in raptures during a Bible class, turns “the whites of her eyes upwards towards the holiness”. Other people’s speech, meanwhile – about gardening, or funerals, or sexual assault – is set in a dextrous frame. “Eena is Dead”, a sweet chapter, takes the cant Ruby hears about a neighbour – “Eena was playing the harp in the eternal light. Eena had departed and was no more” – and repeats it with a new elegance, made both poignant and wry.

Ruby is tart about “over-sharing” – “Scheherezade is ‘world-freer’ in Arabic. But who exactly did she free?” – which makes Somebody Loves You a primer in narrating emotions with sensitivity. Ruby grows up, learns more, keeps shtum; her portraits of family, neighbours and friends become all the more finely observed. The only misfire here is a pair of chapters told from other perspectives with thoughts that Ruby couldn’t credibly ghost. Otherwise, this novel is prismatically gorgeous: a fluent construction, and deconstruction, of words.

Somebody Loves You is published by And Other Stories at £11.99. To order your copy for £10.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

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