Books

Malla Nunn
Sugar Town Queens

Is there any better feeling than reading a book that makes you feel as if you’re discovering all over again the singular magic of telling? Sugar Town Queens drew me in, dismantled my heart and then put it back together. It’s a stunning young adult book from the multi-award-winning author Malla Nunn, whose debut YA novel When the Ground Is Hard (2019) was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and won a swag of international prizes.

Nunn’s writing is an ideal mix of clever, funny, insightful, snarky and beautiful. The witty, smart-mouthed voice of 15-year-old Amandla is balanced against the sheer beauty of Nunn’s lyrical prose – “our fingers touch, hers pale, mine brown, both with long fingers, elegant, waiting for jewellery, or a piano. In another life, maybe. Our room is too small for a piano, and there is no money for jewels” – creating a story that is by turns grittily realistic and poetic.

Amandla lives with her white, reclusive mother in Sugar Town on the fringe of Durban in South Africa. She doesn’t know why they live there, and her mother, the only family she has ever known, can’t remember what happened to them. Only that it was something terrible. On Amandla’s 15th birthday, her mother has a vision that Amandla’s father will return soon. This sets off a chain of events that lead to discoveries about who Amandla is, where she comes from, the amount of strength she possesses and the power and importance of love and being loved.

The friendships and family relationships, new and old, are drawn strongly. Nunn captivatingly unravels the mystery of Amandla’s family and fills the story with events that at the same time seem both wildly unexpected and heartbreakingly inevitable.

We feel the depths of Amandla’s emotions as she discovers who she is, where she comes from and what she wants from her life. It takes enormous skill to balance a narrative of such sadness and uncertainty with the moments of genuine humour that are scattered throughout this book.

Amandla’s journey reaches a cathartic ending that leaves many questions still to be answered. Sugar Town Queens is full of despair and uncertainty but has so much hope and promise that it left me bursting with joy.

Olivia Muscat

Allen & Unwin, 312pp, $19.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 7, 2021 as "Sugar Town Queens".

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Reviewer: Olivia Muscat