In the aftermath of her mother’s death from AIDS, Chanda Kabelo struggles to raise her younger siblings, Lily and Soly. She’s plagued by recurring nightmares that suggest she needs to make peace with her estranged relatives in their ancestral village and heal the family split caused by her mother’s illness. Granny and Auntie Lizbet welcome her and her siblings, but there’s a catch – they’ve arranged for Chanda to marry a local boy. Chanda refuses, which causes new rifts. Then chaos erupts in a series of vicious attacks by the rebel army, which kidnaps Lily and Soly to use them as child soldiers.
Allan Stratton’s powerful sequel to Chanda’s Secrets covers a tremendous amount of territory: the chaos of civil war in Africa, the plight of child soldiers, survival in the shadow of AIDS, the conflicts between traditional customs and the modern world. This is a much bigger book than Chanda’s Secrets, and it’s an enormous achievement that Stratton is able to tackle these issues, create a compelling narrative that doesn’t sink under information overload, and tell a deeply satisfying story.
The real strength here is the character of Chanda, with whom many readers already feel deeply connected. Chanda has matured because of her responsibilities as a surrogate parent, but she’s still only a teenager – we glimpse this in her frustrated desire to become a teacher, her anger at how her relatives manipulate her, and her anguish in not knowing how to help her siblings. The narrative moves from one crisis to another at breakneck pace, but with an intimacy that allows readers to witness the action through Chanda’s eyes without being overwhelmed.
Like other stories about child soldiers – such as Peter Dickinson’s AK and Bernard Astley’s Little Soldier – this deeply resonant novel offers readers a glimpse into the heart of darkness but brings us back into the light again.