In “Sugar Town Queens,” author Malla Nunn takes us on a journey to the slums of South Africa, where fifteen-year-old Amandla lives with Annalisa, her white mother. Where they live, in the slum called Sugar Town for its proximity to the sugar cane fields, her mother is the only white person, and the oddity of her existence there extends beyond her skin color. Annalisa’s accent marks her as upper class, as does her insistence on living in an immaculate house—even though it’s one room made from tin — teaching Amandla how to make tea the correct way, and speaking correctly. The narrative is powerful, and we see the world through Amandla’s clever, perceptive eyes.
But we see immediately that something is wrong with Annalisa. Her ability to think and remember has been impaired, and while she cares for Amandla, Amandla also cares for her mother, who has episodes where she cries and has nightmares. Annalisa has visions, and in first person narrative, Amandla explains, “My mother is out of her mind.” Annalisa also has premonitions that are——sometimes—eerily prescient. Amandla attends the local high school as does her best friend, Lil Bit. They add Goodness to their group, and the three of them become good friends. Goodness’ family is the most successful of the three, and often when they’ve not had much to eat, Goodness’ kitchen provides much needed sustenance.
Amandla doesn’t know who her father is, and it seems that her mother doesn’t remember much about him. It’s as if that part of her life has disappeared. But she does disappear occasionally, and one day, Amandla finds an address in her mother’s purse with a huge sum of money. She realizes that the money is what pays for her schooling and the rent on their little shack, and she decides to visit the address unbeknownst to her mother in order to discover what her mother is hiding.
What Amandla learns at that address changes their lives. She discovers that she has extended family, especially a grandmother. And she learns, slowly, why her mother hid their existence in the Shanty Town, and why her mother is perpetually frightened. Over the course of the story, we grow to care deeply about Amandla and her mother as well as about her good friends. Our hearts break at the betrayal her mother has experienced, and at the callous disregard for “others” that exists in South Africa in spite of Nelson Mandela and the country’s purported change. As in the USA, wealthy and white means power while poor and black means easily forgotten, easily ignored, and easily downtrodden.
I found the story truly difficult to put down, and that was unexpected. The characters and the plot really drew me in, and it’s the kind of story you don’t want to end because you enjoy learning about the lives of the characters, and you want to know what happens next. One of the aspects of human existence that Nunn describes beautifully is how dignity and kindness know no boundaries. One might have nothing but still retain human generosity and decency, while another person who has everything might be greedy, hateful, and lacking in all moral fiber. We meet both types of people.
I’d definitely recommend this book for a book club because although it’s a young adult novel, it might well be enjoyed by adults, and it has much to offer in terms of discussion and thoughtful reflection about mental health, race, power, family and friendship. There is nothing in it that would preclude it from being a good choice for middle school and high school readers and a real chance to take a glimpse into another culture, albeit one that is not too different from ours in many unpleasant respects.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Putnam, the publisher, for review purposes.