What knowledge is worth having? Sixteen year old Adele asks herself this in crime writer Malla Nunn’s YA debut, after her room mate calls her ignorant. The insult smarts all the more because it comes from Lottie Diamond, who is what Adele calls a third-class girl. A bottom-shelf girl. A girl with whom someone like Adele—whose father pays her school fees in full and who lives in a house with carpets—shouldn’t even be sharing a room.
But nothing is how it ought to be for Adele as another year begins at Keziah Christian Academy, a boarding school for mixed race children. This is Swaziland, 1965, and the only thing that matters to Adele is navigating—and surviving—the complex and ruthless hierarchies of her world.
The triumph of this novel is Nunn’s generosity and skill in illuminating these nuances of status, which include the mundane rivalries and cruelties of the schoolyard but go far beyond them too, into territory defined by race, gender and class and policed by shame and violence. The students at Keziah Christian Academy occupy a precarious place in the societal order. Neither white nor black, many of them—including Adele—are born to unmarried parents. Within their mixed-raced grouping, those with money are desperate to differentiate themselves from the dirt-poor kids who eat better at school than they do at home, and whose fees are paid for by overseas charities.
Adele’s own position as a ‘top shelf girl’ has always been hard-won, and she arrives at Keziah ready to hang onto it for another year by following school rules, doing whatever pretty, affluent Delia says and trading canned goods for favours. She is clear-eyed about her situation, and horrified when Delia spurns her for a richer, more useful friend. Her journey to the bottom of the heap is swift and merciless, sealed when she is billeted with Lottie Diamond, one of the girls ‘who spits and swears and fights with boys’, who only has one school uniform, and whose mother is considered a ‘rough-necked slut’.
Adele has always been taught by her mother to survive by appeasing those with power. ‘You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,’ she says, schooling Adele to put on a smile for her white father during his rare visits. It’s a brutal exposition of structural power; any status the family has is due to his money, and the questions of how Adele really feels about him, or whether he really loves his second family (in his ‘real’ life across the border he has a white wife and children) are not ones she feels she can ask herself.
Her mother’s lesson is reinforced in blunter terms by the school, where corporal punishment is routine and shame is a weapon, wielded under the auspices of ‘Christian’ values like cleanliness and piousness. When Matron forces Lottie to lift her dress in front of the other students and prove that she is wearing a clean pair of underwear each day, Lottie is, in that moment, ‘guilty of sins she hasn’t even committed.’ Those sins are poverty, femaleness and blackness, cast by the American-run school as personal faults from which Lottie is responsible for redeeming herself. Adele has internalised this narrative of colonial and gendered oppression, and her own terror of being shamed drives her actions. But Nunn wants us to understand, above all, that her characters deserve our empathy for the things they do to survive, the compromises they make, their suppression of self.
Adele and Lottie forge a literary friendship, finding shared inspiration in Jane Eyre. To them, Jane is a girl with similar struggles to their own, but whose ‘mouth doesn’t hurt from smiling’. It’s not lost on them that it’s Jane, not pious Helen Burns, who ‘gets to live and write the book’, even while they are cynical about the storybook luck of her inheritance and its ability to make right the wrongs done to her.
Despite the knowingness of this intertextual commentary, the major plot points of When the Ground is Hard are less adroitly handled than other aspects of the text. Clichés often keep things moving: a heartfelt, private letter, accidentally posted; the fate of vulnerable Darnell, a student with a learning disability; and the convenient opportunity for heroism provided by a fire at the school. Exposition on the social order in the school is laboured at times. But in the face of the novel’s heart-rending realities —and they do read as realities, described by Nunn as having their roots in the stories of her own mother and aunties—this doesn’t ultimately matter. This is an incisive, absorbing novel with clean, fit-for-purpose writing and buckets of thematic substance.
The substance wins out, as Lottie goads Adele to question what she really knows about herself, her world and the other people in it. Lottie has already realised she can’t win the game Adele is trying to play, and this liberates her, so that she might show her friend the way to ‘a different country’, one where she can hear her ‘own thoughts.’
When the Ground is Hard by Malla Nunn
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Children’s
Publication date: June 2019