Review: Nisha’s War

Written by Dan Smith
Cover Design by Steve Wells
Cover Illustration by Matthew Land
Published by Chicken House

Nisha’s War is a stunning, hauntingly atmospheric wartime adventure which swept me into a ghostly tale of loss, forgiveness and hope; a powerful depiction of the trauma caused by war and of healing within a family.

1942:  13-year-old Nisha and her mother have escaped the horrors of the Japanese invasion of Malaya to live in her father’s ancestral home on Barrow Island on the North West coast of England.  When they arrive at the imposing Barrow House, they are made to feel less than welcome by Nisha’s grandmother, the formidable Mrs Barrow who informs them that there are a set of rules which she expects to be followed, rules which are shared with them by the kind-hearted housekeeper, Mrs Foster.

When Nisha’s mother falls seriously ill with a suspected recurrence of malaria, Nisha finds herself alone and in desperate need of a friend.  Encouraged to explore outdoors by Mrs F, Nisha discovers a beautiful, secluded walled garden, and catches a glimpse of a boy, but why has Mrs F told her there is no one else living on the island?

Later, she wakes to find herself on the path leading to the mysterious weeping tree which sits on the cliff edge, beckoned towards it by the boy she has seen earlier.  Despite being forbidden to go near the tree, she finds herself inexorably drawn towards it where she meets the boy, Twig.  He asks for her help in finding three lost treasures which he cannot reveal to her and, in return, he will save her parents.  Nisha cannot resist the enigmatic bargain, and finds herself in a race to find the treasures before the full moon turns from gold to silver.  Will she be able to save her family before hope is lost? 

This is a perfect melding of the historical and the otherworldly which kept me utterly gripped throughout as danger creeps ever closer, time runs out, and secrets are uncovered. The evocation of wartime, of a sense of eeriness and of an isolated island are brilliantly portrayed.  The loss of colour, warmth and hope in Nisha’s life following the invasion of her once-happy home is powerfully portrayed in the descriptions of the island, but hope has the chance of returning through her quest and her relationships with those she meets. 

Nisha is an incredibly sympathetic character whose life in Malaya is revealed through extracts from her ‘Truths’, a series of diary entries which tell of her life in Malaya and her traumatic escape from Singapore, haunted by her own ghosts which follow her to her new home.  Learning about Nisha’s experiences as war tore her life apart was heart-breaking. She is a young girl who faces racism, loneliness and fear, but has the inner strength and courage to face that fear, to forgive, to accept and to heal her family.  Whilst Nisha faces prejudice due to her Anglo-Indian heritage, she also forms some wonderful friendships, especially with a young boy, Jamie, who she meets whilst on a visit to the nearby village.  I also really enjoyed the relationship which develops between Nisha and her grandmother which is incredibly heart-warming.

This is a thrilling, engrossing wartime adventure:  a story of family and friendship, of belonging and acceptance, and of loss and hope.  I cannot wait to share this one with my class, and can highly recommend it to anyone of 9+.

Thank you to Chicken House Books for an early copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

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