Release Day Review – ‘Sugar Town Queens’ by Malla Nunn

TITLE: Sugar Town Queens
AUTHOR: Malla Nunn
GENRE: YA Contemporary, Coming-of-Age
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 312 pages (paperback)
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Allen & Unwin on August 3rd, 2021
RRP: $19.99 AUD (paperback)

Blurb from Goodreads:

From LA Times Book Prize Award Winner and Edgar Award Nominee Malla Nunn comes a stunning portrait of a family divided and the bonds that knit our communities.

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. 

This YA coming-of-age story centers around Amandla, a 15 year old biracial girl living in a South African township called Sugar Town. Born to a white mother with a black father who isn’t in the picture, Amandla has it tough growing up below the poverty line and trying to cope with her mother’s mental illness. 

Normally I wouldn’t pick up this kind of book as I assumed it was going to focus on misery porn, but I was completely mistaken. Yes, it addresses serious real life issues of poverty, racism and classism, but these are treated as factors that make up the background of Amandla’s life, it doesn’t dominate who she is or what she does. Amandla’s focus is on solving the mystery behind her mother’s past to try and bring her closure and help heal her spirit as it’s clear that Annalisa is suffering from unresolved trauma, and in the process, she discovers family she never knew existed in the wealthy Durban city. 

Amandla grows closer to some of her relatives, but also stirs up conflict and hostility as it transpires that deeply ingrained racism led to her mother being ostracized and worse. There are dark family secrets to be uncovered and a lot of heartache along the way, but what makes this book shine is that it highlights how strong the love is between mother and daughter, between Amandla and her best friend Lil Bit, and in the found family that develops as unexpected allies come together to help her reconnect with her roots. The author showcases how Amandla is blessed with love and support from many corners that the chief antagonist in this story lacks, for all their prestige and privilege. Instead of being a tough dreary slog, this ended up being heartwarming and uplifting and had many sweet moments that made me smile and a particularly hard-won victory that made me cheer. 

For a thoughtful, life-affirming story about the bonds of family and community, overcoming prejudice and proudly owning who you are, check out this book. You may shed a few tears (I certainly did!), but it’s a wholly rewarding reading experience not to be missed. 

Disclaimer: physical copy provided free from the publisher for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

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