Growing up in the slums of South Africa’s Sugar Town, life for 15-year-old Amandla hasn’t always been easy. When she’s not planning her escape, she’s working hard to achieve good grades at school whilst struggling with her white mother’s eccentric visions of her absent father and memories of times long ago.
When one day her mother returns from shopping with a bag full of more cash than Amandla has ever seen before, she’s determined to find out where she obtained the money, which leads to her diving deeper into her mother’s past and family secrets she has yet to confront.
This is the premise of Malla Nunn’s latest young adult novel, Sugar Town Queens. Originally from Swaziland before emigrating to Australia to escape apartheid, Nunn has called this country home for many years and had many different careers during that time, achieving success as a screenwriter with the documentary Servants of the Ancestors. The film won Best Documentary (Silver Images) at the Zanzibar Film Festival, as well as screening at several other festivals.
As an author, Nunn has written the Detective Emmanuel Cooper crime fiction series which has been nominated for the 2015 Edgar Allen Poe Awards, and the 2011 Ned Kelly Awards. One of the novels, A Beautiful Place to Die took out the 2009 Davitt Award for Best Adult Novel, and her debut YA novel When the Ground is Hard was shortlisted at last year’s Children’s Book Council of Australia Children’s Book of the Year Awards (Older Readers category).
I’ve been aware of Malla Nunn’s work for a while now, having read some of her writing as part of a short story collection a number of years ago. Since then, I’ve been wanting to read more of her work and the release of Sugar Town Queens, her second YA novel, seemed like a great opportunity to do so.
To say Sugar Town Queens is an engaging novel is something of an understatement. I connected with Amandla and her friends from the very beginning of the novel – despite the stark differences in our upbringing and culture – and couldn’t help but root for her and her mother throughout the story. The characters are dynamic and three-dimensional, with a wit and understanding of cultural differences and circumstances that almost leap of the page.
The most notable relationship within Sugar Town Queens is, of course, the relationship between Amandla and her mother, Annalisa. While Amandla does have to, at times, take control of the relationship and their lifestyle, there is still that unbreakable mother-daughter bond between the two characters that is so strong and unique.
Even when Annalisa isn’t overly present in the story, her character remains just as vibrant because the relationship between her and the main character is such a driving force behind the story and the actions Amandla takes to improve their situation.
Nunn’s writing style is appealing, and her handling of difficult topics such as family relationships and cultural identity is measured yet honest, most likely because of her own experiences with her South African heritage and a family members with bipolar disorder.
Her prose, and the plot itself, is frank when it needs to be but also light-hearted and fun at times of tension (without taking away from the gravity of the situation). This is something that, in my opinion, would be great for YA readers who like novels with slightly darker connotations, but also with enough moments of relief so that it’s overall well-balanced and accomplished.
I enjoyed Sugar Town Queens immensely, and think it’s one of the most layered and engaging YA novels I have read in a long time. It will not only appeal to young adult readers, but readers of any age.
Sugar Town Queens is out now through Allen & Unwin. To find out more about Malla Nunn’s work, click here.
This review is part of my Spotlight on Australian Authors series. If you’ve missed any of the previous posts, click the image below.