Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 3, 2021

Sugar Town Queens, by Malla Nunn

Malla Nunn is one of the few authors I know who can write genre fiction that IMO can be relied on for really good reading.  I find most crime novels predictable and dull  but I have been really impressed by her Detective Emmanuel Cooper series set in apartheid-era South Africa, and now I’m really impressed by her venture into YA with Sugar Town Queens.

I’m going to quote from my review of Catching Teller Crow to refresh our collective memories about how the worth of a YA novel tends to be judged differently to adult novels:

 Felicity Castagna, author of No More Boats, was reviewing Helena Fox’s How It Feels To Float (see here) but began by talking about the ways in which YA is judged.

… more than any other genre YA books are likely to be judged on their relevance and relatability. YA is valued for its ability to speak to, to dissect, to make present, to make clear, to smash over your head the issues that really matter in young people’s lives.

But, she argues, this means that YA books are valued as a social good, rather than a literary good, and whereas literary critics of adult books tend to look for complex and interesting textual practices… In YA we look for issues, themes, the ability to make young people want to turn pages and read on.  

As you will probably see in social media reviews, Sugar Town Queens ticks all these boxes when it comes to the usual YA themes. It has teen protagonists; teen romance; identity issues; relationship problems with fellow teens and parents; emerging ambitions and responsibilities and a desire for self-determination.  It also has a compelling plot with heart-stopping danger, and all this makes it relevant and ‘relatable’ for young people.

But this novel is much more than that, because it takes its readers not into the clichés of dystopia, but into a real world remote from common experience in Australia—which makes it interesting reading for adults too.   It is a window into the post-Mandela world in South Africa, where racial discrimination is still rife.  White people still hold most of the country’s power and wealth, but mixed-race people also experience discrimination from Black South Africans.  The central character, 15 year-old Amandla, is the daughter of a white mother and a black father she has never seen.  Her mother has mental health problems: visions, obsessions and embarrassingly eccentric behaviour.  They live together in a shanty-town outside Durban, getting by on Annalisa’s meagre earnings from casual work, supplemented by money from an unknown source which pays for Amandla’s school fees.  Education is her way out of poverty and despair, but like everything else in her life, it is tentative.  There are no certainties and the promises of the Rainbow Nation are fading with every passing year since Mandela’s death.

This is the blurb:

When Amandla wakes up on her fifteenth birthday she knows it’s going to be one of her mother’s difficult days. Her mother has had another vision. If Amandla wears a blue sheet her mother has loosely stitched as a dress and styles her normally braided hair in a halo around her head, Amandla’s father will come home. Amandla’s mother, Annalisa, always speaks of her father as if he was the prince of a fairytale, but in truth he’s been gone since before Amandla was born and even Annalisa’s memory of him is hazy. In fact many of Annalisa’s memories from before Amandla was born are hazy. It’s just one of the many reasons people in Sugar Town give Annalisa and Amandla strange looks–that and the fact her mother is white and Amandla is brown.

But when Amandla finds a mysterious address in the bottom of her mother’s handbag along with a large amount of cash, she decides it’s finally time to get answers about her mother’s life. But what she discovers will change the shape and size of her family forever.

Amandla is a feisty girl.  She has had to be because her mother’s condition makes life embarrassing for her and the bullies have great fun at her expense. When the story opens she has tended to avoid relationships and has only her mother to whom she is devoted but not deluded, and her BFF LilBit.  Unexpectedly there are friendship overtures from Goodness, who is (relatively speaking, within Sugar Town) ‘rich’ and gorgeous *and* has a gorgeous but unattainable brother.   Out of the blue Amandla’s neighbour Mrs M helps out with a wardrobe and Bad Hair Day disaster.  These new relationships turn out to be pivotal to the way Amandla deals with her mother’s confronting past.

I like the way Malla Nunn does not whitewash the realities of life in contemporary South Africa.  There is a satisfying ending but it’s not a fantasy that solves the intractable problems of poverty and violence that plague South Africa’s big cities.

I finished reading this book in mid July just after I broke my wrist: the review was typed one-handed through a fog of painkillers.  I hope by the time the publishing embargo is lifted on August 3rd, I’ll be on the road to recovery.  But reading this book reminds me of how lucky I am.  Easy access to first-class medical care is available to everyone here in Australia through Medicare; but when Amandla’s mother needs urgent medical care it’s a different story altogether.  To watch a loved one in this situation is hard for anyone, but to experience it when it is lack of money and power that blocks the prospect of any help must be excruciating.

Author: Malla Nunn
Title: Sugar Town Queens
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781760526832, pbk., 291 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin


Responses

  1. A great review! I now want to run out and get a copy to find out how the story ends! I also appreciated your discussion of YA fiction, as I’ve been somewhat puzzled over its defining features (aside, that is, from a teen romance & parent issues).
    Sugar Town’s setting and subject brings to mine Damon Galgut’s The Promise, which I finished a few days ago. Galgut tells his story in 10 year increments, beginning with the last days of apartheid. The second section begins with Mandela and the faulty promise of a Rainbow Nation, with things going mostly down hill from there. It’s a great novel and I’m hoping it goes far in the Booker competition (haven’t read any of the other nominees so I don’t know the strength of its competition). I grew up in the American deep south, which had its own nasty little version of apartheid and I was glad to see that this YA novel didn’t gloss over the realities, i.e., that political change can often be confined to the surface and frequently doesn’t alter cultural realities.
    I hope the wrist is better (the last month must have been hell).
    Oh, before I forget — you in Australia are lucky with your health care system. If you follow U.S. news, you’ll know that availability (not to mention affordability — it’s expensive) in a real issue for us. I’ve personally known many people who either did without, or self-rationed.

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    • Ah yes, The Promise… I have it on reserve at the library, I haven’t been able to collect it because of Lockdown. Now that it’s ended, I just have to organise someone to drive me there to pick it up…

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  2. Great cover!

    I didn’t know she wrote YA.

    Also: you’re clearly reading the wrong crime books if you think they’re predictable and dull 😉

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    • Well, Kim, I don’t want to get into a squabble about crime fiction, but I read nearly all of your reviews and also those of Jennifer at Tas Bibliophile because she likes crime too, and they just don’t appeal. Genre fiction, by definition, conforms to certain tropes and that’s what I find predictable and dull.
      There are 28 crime novels reviewed on this blog, all of them recommended by someone who assured me they were terrific, and with the exception of the ones by Malla Nunn, Preservation by Jock Serong and City of the Dead by Clare de Witt, none of them were memorable for me.
      There is no doubt that crime fiction is extremely popular, and that the fiction I like to read best is not. It should not bother anybody that I don’t care for popular fiction, just as it doesn’t bother me if people are dismissive about the kind of books I like.
      Vive la difference, I say!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t read YA fiction at all, but this does sound very tempting. It’s tackling huge themes but it sounds like the characters are really well realised and don’t get lost under the weight of it.

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    • I believe that Malla Nunn has a wide readership in the US, and Allen and Unwin publish in the UK too, so you should have no trouble getting a copy.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love Malla Nunn’s crime series (and I’m not a fan of crime either), I’m always recommending them to others. This YA sounds great, I’ll definitely find a copy of this one to read

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    • It might even have been you who recommended Malla Nunn to me:)

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  5. 🙂

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  6. Hi Lisa,
    I was introduced to Malla Nunn in a review you wrote on one of her books, which motivated me to find information about her writings online. There has been buzz around Sugar Town Girls by the School Library Journal and its U.S. publisher, Penguin Random House. I’ve always been interested in reading books that centers around children and young adults’ voices and life experiences amidst apartheid/post-apartheid.

    Lisa, I found your insight on YA literature’s literary merit and social and cultural relevance interesting to read. I have to admit that I attempted to read a YA novel a while back and didn’t finish reading it because of some superficial ideas and attitude of entitlement that some of the characters exhibited. However, I have read adult books that focused on young characters, which gave a nunaced perspective on their life experiences.

    I feel compelled to read Sugar Town Queens, which I hope to read by the end of the summer. Your review of this novel brings to mind past adult and children’s novels that relate to some of the issues that Malla Nunn explores in her novel. The books are as follows:

    Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
    The Stone Virgins by Yvonne Vera
    We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
    Journey to Jo’burg: A South African Story by Beverley Naidoo
    The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta
    The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

    Happy reading
    Sonia

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    • Thanks, Sonia… it’s always good to have more books lined up for the wishlist:)
      I’ve got Nervous Conditions (and I’ve read We Need New Names) but not the others.

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