Nisha’s War by Dan Smith

Published by Chicken House, 2022.

Nisha’s War is an atmospheric and evocative wartime ghost story that had me gripped from the first page.

Nisha is half Indian and half English and lives with her parents in Malaya. When the Japanese invade, she and her family, along with countless others, are forced to flee to Singapore. Nisha and her Amma (mother) make it onto a boat but her father is left behind. They travel to her father’s ancestral home on Barrow Island in the north of England. It is cold and grey – a far cry from the colour and warmth of Malaya – and Nisha’s grandmother is strict and unwelcoming. Amma has malaria and is gravely ill: weak and feverish, too poorly to get out of bed. Consequently, Nisha is left alone to explore the island and her creepy new home. When a ghost child beckons Nisha to sit under the boughs of the old weeping tree, and promises her Amma’s life and her father’s safety in return for three treasures, its pull proves irresistible …

Nisha’s War is beautifully written. Dan Smith is a master of imagery, bringing Malaya and Barrow Island so vividly alive on the page. His lyrical descriptions are rich with detail and convey a very strong sense of place and time. I was transported to the 1940s, to Malaya and the north of England.

Dan skilfully weaves together several storytelling strands to make Nisha’s War a complex and satisfying read. There’s the atmospheric ghost story aspect which brings a creepy, unsettling feeling to the book but also adds a sense of magic and spirituality. Then there are dramatic scenes of high tension which had me on the edge of my seat. Nisha’s story of her life in Malaya is told in a series of flashbacks, mainly recorded in the journal she’s keeping as a form of therapy to process the traumatic wartime events she’s lived through.

The book’s themes of grief, guilt, forgiveness and belonging are extremely powerful and will resonate with the reader. So too will the book’s underlying messages about courage, honesty and hope.

There’s also a stark and honest exploration of racism and what it means to be a refugee – sadly still very relevant today. Nisha and her mother face prejudice and judgement in England. Some of the locals do nothing to hide their dislike and distrust of refugees, and Nisha’s grandmother does not hide her disapproval of Amma as a daughter-in-law, making it very clear that she would have preferred her son to marry a nice English girl.

I liked how the book depicted aspects of the Second World War that were less familiar to me: the Japanese invasion of Malaya and the fall of Singapore. These events will certainly be unfamiliar to most primary-aged children too. Dan Smith’s portrayal of how war affects the mental health of young people also provides another fresh angle on a wartime story.

Relationships and characters are at the heart of Nisha’s War. There is family history, trauma and historic hurt for characters to navigate. I loved watching them develop during the course of the story. Relationships thaw and change and we witness personal growth and self-acceptance too.

In Nisha, Dan has created a sympathetic and engaging female lead whom I rooted for from the start. There’s a fantastic cast of fully realised supporting characters too. Local lad Jamie, Land Girl Joy, kindly cook and housekeeper Mrs Foster and her husband Mr Foster and, of course, the formidable Mrs Barrow.

I also want to mention the stunning artwork on the inside front and back covers, which fold out to almost double in size. Steve Wells has used a scrapbooking technique to great effect, combining maps, photos and vintage ephemera. The book itself is punctuated by illustrated title pages showing the changing phases of the moon, conveying an increasing sense of urgency as the full moon approaches and Nisha’s time to find the treasures runs out.

Nisha’s War is storytelling at its best.

Rating: 💙💙💙💙💙

Suitable for children aged 9+

Thank you to Chicken House for sending me this book to review.

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