By BETHANNE PATRICK Los Angeles Times | APRIL 17, 2020
Malla Nunn’s “When the Ground is Hard,” the 2019 winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for young-adult literature, will summon a familiar world for fans of her award-winning Detective Emmanuel Cooper series. Both narratives are set in the earlier years of South African apartheid, a time and place far removed from author’s longtime home in Sydney, Australia.
Nunn was born in Swaziland, and her novel “When the Ground Is Hard” pays homage to her mother and aunt’s 1960s schooldays at a missionary-run “Christian Academy,” the same one Nunn herself eventually attended before emigrating Down Under, at 14, with her family. Unlike many young-adult novels reaching into the writer’s childhood, it was hardly a work of nostalgia.
“This book came out of a massive failure of trying to write something that I thought would just be entertaining,” says Nunn, speaking by phone from Sydney, “instead of just writing what was close to my heart. I’ve been to this boarding school, why would I want to go back there? But a writer friend encouraged me, and also said: Take really good care of yourself while you work on this. You’re going to be going back to a place you didn’t love.”
No one loves the Keziah Christian Academy of Nunn’s novel, especially not protagonist Adèle Joubert, whose mother feels proud that her children’s bigamist white South African father pays their school fees. Accustomed to being in the clique of “pretty” girls in the institution for multiracial children, Adele returns for the new year to find herself sent down a rung — forced to room with Lottie, whose poverty and odd behavior make her a pariah.
“Even after I conceived of the relationship between these two girls, I was still pretty resistant to actually writing about them,” says Nunn. “This is my blood in this book. It’s my mother, my aunties, my grandmother. We all went to that school. My parents worked at that school. Our experience was not entertaining. I needed to write about what was actually important in our experience.”