Book Review: “Sugar Town Queens” by Malla Nunn (@MallaNunn @AllenAndUnwin @EasternRegional)

Sugar Town Queens (Allen & Unwin Children’s Books, 2021) by Malla Nunn

This is the third in a series of six reviews featuring the 2022 Readings Young Adult Book Prize.

Sugar Town Queens is the second young adult novel by award-winning Swaziland-born screenwriter and author Malla Nunn. It is set in the shanty towns of Durban, South Africa, a highly ethnically diverse city with large Zulu, White and Indian/Asian populations.

The story’s biracial protagonist, 15-year-old Amandla, dreams of one day leaving the rusty tin shacks and narrow dirt streets of Sugar Town. Her hero is Nelson Mandela, who gives people hope that one day the South Africa he dreamed of will come to pass. However:

“His dream is slow in coming. Money and race divide us. The rich are still rich and the poor are still poor and none of us is truly colourblind… Mandela came to power and said that we are all one rainbow nation with our colours mixed together… [He] would be disappointed to see how stubbornly the colours of the rainbow refuse to get along.”

Sugar Town is ruled by poverty and crime, but it is home, where Amandla and her friends learn about Ubuntu, the Zulu idea that “a person is a person through other people. We are all interconneted in a living, breathing ocean of compassion”.

Indeed, friendship and community togetherness shapes Amandla’s tender heart and fierce attitude and plays a prominent role in her search for identity. Why does her mother, a white woman, live in a slum and suffer severe memory loss? Who is her father and what are the secrets of her mother’s life?

As Amandla unravels the dark past, she is confronted with prejudice and racial hatred, as well as violence and patriarchal dominance. Yet she also finds love and faith in humanity, and her undiminished confidence and courage to break out of isolation is truly inspiring.

To this reviewer, perhaps the most impressive part of Sugar Town Queens is its writing, which perfectly captures the raw emotions of a teenage girl. The writing is fluid and authentic, effortlessly carrying the weight of Amandla’s intense loyalty to family and friends.

Meanwhile, life in Sugar Town is vividly illustrated, often with a touch of endearing exasperation that only those who have lived in close-knit communities can understand.. There is the blind aunty who can “hear a pin drop in Zimbabwe” and who knits scarves for orphans. And there is Mrs M who supports six family members under one small roof yet always helps out in the neighbourhood. There is relentless gossip, but there is also kindness and mutual appreciation.

“In Sugar Town, promises are cheap, but the hope they create is priceless. They also help us to sleep and to dream of the good things waiting for us around the corner.” This is a compassionate, positive book that warms your heart, a reminder of Mandela’s words that “a winner is a dreamer who never gives up”.

Note: This book review was originally published under the title “Fierce and fearless teenage story” by Ranges Trader Star Mail, November 22, 2022, P.15.

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