Title: Sugar Town Queens
Author: Malla Nunn
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021
Malla Nunn is a film director and multi-award-winning author of adult crime novels, plays and film scores and, more recently, two young adult novels. Sugar Town Queens is the second of these. She was born and raised in Swaziland before migrating to Western Australia with her family where she finished school and commenced her university studies. Since then, Malla has studied and worked in the USA and Zanzibar and is now settled with her husband in Sydney.
Like Malla herself, the protagonist of this story, Amandla, is a mixed-race girl. She lives with her mother, a white woman, in a one-roomed shack on a lane that has no name in a township a few miles from Durban. Their poverty is palpable. However, Amandla, despite the difficulties of her life – and there are many – points out that they are not the poorest, there are others even poorer.
As the story unfolds the reasons for their dire situation are revealed. These reasons revolve around events that occurred before Amandla’s birth fifteen years earlier. Something back then caused her mother, Annalisa, to develop gaps in her memory and to behave in some unorthodox ways. A white woman living in a township is the first of these, as is the isolation she imposes on Amandla and herself from the rest of the community. The book revolves around Amandla’s efforts to discover the reasons for her mother’s mental state and their living situation.
Amandla faces a range of issues in her quest for the truth. These include both overt and covert racism, the structural inequalities that still exist in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa of ‘rainbow people’, and her mother’s obvious mental health problems. A severe lack of physical and financial resources is more than met by the resourcefulness of Amandla herself, and the group of friends – the queens of the title – she gathers around her as she discovers facts important to her history and her future, and creates community for her and her mother. The strength and resilience of young people, particularly the young women of the story, as they cohere as a group is powerful. This is particularly so when they deal with a violent incident.
The writing is gripping, with well-rounded characters and (mostly) believable situations. Nunn’s depiction of family relationships in all their complexity is deft and nuanced. She weaves the larger issues of family, community, belonging, self-discovery and social inequality into the weft of a highly personal narrative. The exploration of characters who tend not to adhere to what is deemed acceptable adds to the complexity of the story without being heavy-handed.
Reviewed by: Elisabeth Bridson, June 2021
Ballarat Writers Inc Book Review Group