Reviews /

Nisha’s War

Authored by Dan Smith
Illustrated by Matthew Land
Published by Chicken House

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Nisha’s War is a triumph of a story by the brilliant Dan Smith. Nisha and her mother flee the war in Malaya and arrive to a frosty reception from Nisha’s paternal grandmother in Barrow House, Northern England.

Emotionally the reader is immediately drawn into the plight of the nameless refugees referred to only as Mother and Daughter (the daughter being the title character) as they arrive on the soulless platform. With every turn of the page we become hungry to learn why Mrs Barrow senior is so aggrieved? What happened to Nisha’s father and who is the mysterious boy that it seems only Nisha can see? 

Smith’s attention to detail creates such a lifelike scene you will most likely draw a blanket around you as you read the grey and desolate opening pages. Although predominantly a piece of historical fiction, there are many geographical and scientific elements of interest, such as the island setting and the comparative descriptions of the vibrant rubber plantations in Malaya and the bleak landscape of Barrow Island in North West England. The time frame of the story follows the lunar cycle, with each chapter ominously illustrated with the changing moon phases in the nine days leading up to a full moon.

Nisha herself is a wonderful character to explore; her Indian/English parentage and her experiences in Malaya and the UK depict different aspects of her character. She is also hard of hearing (due to damage caused by a bomb blast injury), which isn’t particularly focused on but is referred to occasionally in places of relevance.

There are literary techniques aplenty in this novel, including some exquisite descriptive writing that feeds the mind’s eye and ear, such as this description of the causeway linking Barrow Island to the mainland:

It was strewn with tentacles of seaweed as if to remind travellers that the choking sea would soon return to claim it. A carpet of a thousand-thousand shells popped and crunched beneath the trap’s wheel.

The main narrative is also interspersed with diary entries from 1942, entitled – Extracts from Nisha Barrow’s Truth. This split timeline provides details of the events leading up to arrival on Barrow Island from Nisha’s point of view and is an excellent stimulus for children’s own creative writing. The recounts of war-torn Malaya are quite graphic and this is definitely a title more suitable for UKS2 and beyond. This book is beautifully produced by Chicken House, with enthralling endpapers that include scrapbook style/mood board snippets providing interesting discussion stimulus around the story and the wider context.

I would recommend Nisha’s War to readers who enjoyed Tamarind and the Star of Ishta by Jasbinder Bilan (several similarities such as dual-heritage and ghostly goings on) and also for the refugee theme and mother/daughter relationship: The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis. On the theme of World War II, it would also follow on nicely as a more challenging read from Emma Carroll’s Letters from the Lighthouse (with comparative themes) and it would make a fine comparative or bridging text to Carrie’s War. My mind was also transported to The Secret Garden when Nisha steps through an archway into a secluded garden in the grounds of Barrow House. As such this would make the ideal class novel, with so many literary links. Be sure to read beyond the final chapter to get the full story and the historical information and language glossary would be useful to share early on in reading.

Heralded as Dan Smith’s ‘greatest novel’ by Barry Cunningham on the inlay, I suspect Nisha’s War will be in receipt of equally high praise across the board. It is a refreshingly different war-time story, blending the supernatural with a multi-cultural family drama with great skill and immense readability.