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Sugar Town Queens

By Malla Nunn
Reviewed by Mia Macrossan

Malla Nunn, a South African now living and working in Australia, writes adult crime novels as well as YA fiction. This is her second YA title after the much praised When The Ground Is Hard. In both  she has used her deep knowledge of African life and customs to create moving stories about young women discovering who they are as they take charge of their own destiny.

Fifteen-year-old Amandla lives alone with her mother, a troubled white woman, in Sugar Town, one of South Africa’s notorious shanty towns. There is a mystery about her father. The only thing she knows about him is that he is black making Amandla mixed race, belonging nowhere, a fact which affects her life in many hurtful ways.

At the heart of this story is an unfolding family mystery about her mother, involving Amandla not only in unexpected new relations with her mother’s family but also creating new friendships with people at school and in her own shanty town community.

Together with Lil Bit, a clever black girl with her own problems and Goodness Dumisa, a wealthy popular girl in her class, Amandla takes the initiative when her mother is injured in a vicious attack. These three are the Sugar Town queens of the title and they are a force to be reckoned with. Amandla’s blossoming romance with Lewis is a side plot and a delightful picture of teenage love.

Malla Nunn sensitively explores and reveals how toxic racism affects both family and community. Nelson Mandela’s speech about ‘a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world’ is referenced throughout to great effect. Amandla, whose name means power in Zulu, and her friends are appealing characters with many of the problems and fixations of teenagers everywhere.

Sugar Town Queens while serous at heart is leavened by plenty of light and shade, infused with humour and written with a delicacy and generosity that will guarantee its popularity with young readers.

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Allen & Unwin 2021
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