Title: Nisha’s War
Author: Dan Smith
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Chicken House
Published: 1st April 2022
Nisha has escaped the terror of the Japanese invasion of Singapore. Missing the heat of home in Malaya, her grandmother’s house in the North of England seems especially cold and grey. Even the villagers are suspicious of a girl with brown skin who they can see is only half English.
One night, a boy beckons to Nisha from the treehouse she is forbidden from playing in. Or at least, she thinks he’s a boy. And for lonely Nisha, the chance of finding a friend is worth almost anything …
A gorgeously evoked wartime ghost story and adventure full of grief, guilt, forgiveness and belonging.
A fresh angle on a war time story: the prejudice Nisha faces as a refugee feels particularly relevant today.
In 1942, as the Japanese begin their invasion of Singapore, and head into Malaya, Nisha’s father ushers her and Amma onto a ship bound for England. They’re refugees – running from war, from death, from injuries from bombs at the docks that have changed their lives forever. Nisha finds the North of England dark, grey, and uninviting – everyone, apart from the Land Girl, Joy, who has come to help Amma get well, is suspicious of her, even her grandmother, who hides her own grief amidst war and the arrival of a family she seems to not want.
While sleeping one night, Nisha is beckoned to a treehouse by a boy – a treehouse she’s not allowed to play in. Nisha thinks she has found a friend – but the ghostly apparition has a task for her that Nisha must complete to find herself and her place in Barrow House on the island – can the ghost boy help her?
Every World War Two novel explores something different – usually a character, as many take place in similar places – usually in Europe, and usually use the French resistance, spies, or other theatres of war to explore the stories. Every now and then, like with book four in Jackie French’s Matilda Saga, we get a different perspective. In that instance, it was the experience of Australians in Singapore imprisoned by the invading Japanese. And in Nisha’s War, we get another untold or rare perspective – that of refugees. Nisha has escaped bombs from the Japanese, only to find that she is now under threat from bombs from Hitler, though everyone reassures her that their little island is not of interest, and they expect Nisha to conform and forget about what she’s been through. People suspect her because she’s deaf in one ear too. It is only when she meets Jamie on a shopping trip that things start to change – and Nisha starts to find her confidence and voice. I was pulled into Nisha’s story, and wanted to help her, to be her friend. I felt her loneliness seeping off the page, and felt her hope that her father was okay, his fate left unknown like so many.
I also liked the timeline that Nisha had to work to that was based around the full moon. It added a ghostly, mystical feel to the story, yet it was not scary as one might have thought a ghost story would be. In fact, in some ways, I found it comforting – the connection Nisha felt with Twig was one of the standout aspects of the book for me. I also appreciated the awareness that the story brings to refugees throughout history and how they were treated. Nisha was accepted by Joy and Jamie quite easily – which was reassuring and I think set the tone for what was to come in the novel with the growth of other characters and how Amma and Nisha came to be a special part of Barrow Island and Barrow House.
I loved that it ended with hope – hope that the war would end soon, hope that Papa would return to them, and the hope that the family would begin to heal, and would begin to bring joy back into their lives as Nisha and Amma began new lives. It was comforting and reassuring – because it gave a young, lonely girl a family and safety, and the open ending allows the reader to imagine what they want to happen – how they want Nisha’s story to end after the war.
I enjoyed this book, and the contrasts between Malaya and England as Nisha wrote about and got used to her new life, and reflected on the journey that had led her there in this poignant and important novel that shows much more than the battles and concentration camps were happening in the years 1939-1945 in World War Two, across the whole world and what it meant, and how it affected people in different and diverse ways.