Girl of the Southern Sea, by Michelle Kadarusman
This is an empowering, moving and beautifully articulated story of loss and grief and family love, of finding your inner strength against what seems like impossible odds.
Fourteen-year-old Nia lives in the slums of Jakarta, along the train tracks. She yearns to go to high school and become a writer – but instead spends her days running the family food cart and looking after her younger brother. Things begin to change after Nia is involved in a bus accident; Nia miraculously survives, and it seems she has been blessed by good-luck magic. But this is the type of magic that feels fragile, like it might evaporate at any moment – and when it does, hidden secrets and lies will be exposed, threatening to destroy everything Nia has ever hoped for.
I really loved this book – from the creative, smart narrator Nia, to the richly evoked setting. The story is compelling and engaging from the first sentence – I found it impossible to put this book down, I was so invested in the welfare of Nia and her younger brother.
The writing itself is honest and poignant – with some of the sentences glimmering like jewels– but yet never delving into sentimentality. Michelle Kadarusman tackles issues such as arranged marriage, poverty and violence, in a way that is accessible to middlegrade and young adult readers, with an assured and sensitive touch. It is important that our young readers are exposed to difficult subjects in a way that is honest and age-appropriate – and this book perfectly manages this difficult balance.
The stories Nia writes about the mythical Javanese Princess Dewi Kadita, goddess of the sea, provide an added layer to the narrative, with the story of the Princess reflecting the challenges Nia herself faces. This second narrative, threading through the storyline, shows the Princess rising above her difficulties and ultimately triumphing - providing an important allegory for Nia’s own life.
What I particularly love about this book is the way in which it shines a light on the power of storytelling to transport one to other worlds, to provide an outlet for grief and fear, to provide comfort and hope. Nia refuses to give up, following the bright flicker of her dreams through pathways of darkness.
This book offers young readers a glimpse into a world that is most likely completely different to their own. Most young girls based in Australia would take for granted the certainty of going to high school and having the freedom to follow their dreams – but this is certainly not the case for many girls around the world living in poverty.
There is a raw honesty and also a sparkling beauty to this story, which features a diverse cast of characters, and illuminates the ways in which girls can be courageous, smart and strong.
Published by University of Queensland Press