Explosive, long-buried family secrets lie at the heart of Malla Nunn’s vivid and arresting Sugar Town Queens, but so do friendship, hope and the promise of love.
Aptly named for the Zulu word for power, Amandla Harden is a bright and empathetic biracial girl who lives with her unstable white mother, Annalisa, in a tidy one-room shack on the outskirts of Durban, South Africa. Their daily life is a balancing act. Amandla manages their household and the vicissitudes of her mother’s fractured mind while also having typical teenage experiences. She worries about how to make their food money last but also thinks about university and wonders if a cute boy will ever look at her the way she can't help but look at him. It’s a precarious existence, but she’s mostly made it work.
Then around her 15th birthday, Amandla finds a mysterious note and a large wad of cash among her mother’s belongings and decides to investigate what Annalisa has been hiding for so long. The quest turns both of their lives upside down as Amandla opens herself up to new friends and turns to neighbors for support.
As Amandla explores her mother’s connections to an entirely different world from the one Amandla has grown up in, Nunn takes readers into intimate spaces within vastly different sectors of a very stratified and segregated society. Along the way, the novel effectively explores the contradictory racial dynamics of contemporary, post-apartheid South Africa.
Nunn paints an especially grounded and nuanced portrait of life in the townships. Danger lurks around the corner in this ramshackle, hardscrabble place, but the crowded lanes are also full of complicated people who care about and take care of each other. Annalisa and Amandla’s home comes alive on the page—the good, the bad, the ugly and the merely human.
Nunn’s evocative storytelling will make you ache for Amandla. She is a complex creation whose circumstances are sensational but whose journey is relatable. Nunn surrounds Amandla with a diverse cast of characters who are similarly interesting and strongly developed. The novel’s hard truths about race and class are more than balanced by the love of all types that Amandla experiences. These supportive relationships are the most rewarding part of Sugar Town Queens, the glue that holds it all together.