There are some authors whose books a particular reader finds herself inexplicably drawn to. For me, Dan Smith is one such. A few years ago, I was asked to host an event on a promotional tour for his then new book, Boy X. I was delighted to do so as I had read and enjoyed My Brother’s Secret, an earlier novel set in wartime Nazi Germany. It was completely understandable that I enjoyed it as I’m interested in twentieth century European history. Boy X, however, was something entirely different: an action thriller set in the tropics. Not my kind of thing at all. Obviously I had to read it in preparation for my event though – and I loved it! And then there was Below Zero, set in Antarctica. Another winner for me. The only conclusion must be that Dan Smith is a superlatively good storyteller.
Now comes Nisha’s War which backs up that conclusion. Like a couple of Dan’s earlier books it has as its backdrop the Second World War. The astute reader, however, will realise fairly quickly, that many of the battles in this war are much more personal. But it is the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December 1941 that is the catalyst for the story. Nisha and her parents (English father and Indian mother) flee from their home there, making for Singapore and an evacuation ship. Nisha and her mother are amongst the fortunate few who successfully run the gauntlet of attack, bombing and the scramble for berths.
We meet them as they arrive in the north east of England and Nisha’s Grandmother’s home to a less than rapturous welcome. In fact Mrs Barrow, as she wishes to be addressed by her daughter-in-law and grand-daughter, is abrupt to the point of rudeness. And the overwhelming grey of landscape and weather does nothing to improve the situation. Only Mrs F, the housekeeper, exudes any warmth or light but even she is unwilling to offer many explanations. So when Nisha meets the puzzling Twig and is drawn into his strange existence she has no-one to confide in…until Jamie explodes into her life.
These two companions help her as she struggles with her identity, her trauma and her fears for her missing father and seriously ill mother. The Barrows, people and island, have secrets and gradually Nisha realises that she is not alone in having a hidden past. As the novel closes, the worldwide war might still be raging but some of the battles in Nisha’s personal war have been fought and won.
As ever Dan tells a gripping story and he tells it clearly. That’s not to say that there are no puzzles for the reader to ponder along with Nisha, but they’re part of the reading experience. The reader might wonder about Nisha’s recent past or her grandmother’s history or her mother’s illness but she or he will not be confused structurally. The plot unfolds naturally and at a suitable pace with the puzzles being solved gradually.
Most of the book is written in the third person but readers are also privy to Nisha’s own diary-type account of her experiences. In this way we are given an insight to her character, thoughts and feelings which leads to an added depth and strand in the book. And I think that’s important because, for me at least, this novel is more character-driven than plot-led. Which, perhaps, is why I like it so much.
A few days ago I tweeted that, in my opinion, this is Dan Smith’s best book to date and I stand by that. I’ve enjoyed all of his books but this one, and particularly Nisha herself, has stayed with me. I hope that Chicken House will promote it furiously and that libraries and bookshops will draw it to readers’ attention. And you that, my readers, will read Nisha’s War and then give a copy to the young readers in your life.