Nisha’s War

Written by Dan Smith
Review by Helen Johnson

March 1942, and Nisha Barrow and her mother are the only people to alight from the train at Bealmouth, Northumbria, UK. It’s dull, cold, and deserted—just like Nisha’s heart. Because her heart is with her father, left behind in Malaya, her home. The final leg of the journey to Barrow Island is by pony and trap across a tidal causeway. They are given plenty of warnings to beware the tide, should they cross again. Nisha needs no warnings: she’s terrified of the sea.

Once arrived at the island, they receive a cold welcome from a seemingly racist grandmother. Then Nisha’s mother falls seriously ill, and the servant sends Nisha out of the way. Thus, Nisha is left alone to explore the secrets of the barren island and its spooky house.

Thus begins a story that has echoes of classics such as The Secret Garden, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the Famous Five. There’s a strong sense of loneliness, of place, secrets, a hint of the supernatural—and a charming gypsy boy. As an adult, I saw the plot points coming. But it was well written, engaging, and enjoyable to read.

The supernatural element introduced a moral message that was delivered, in my opinion, in an effective, ‘non-preachy’ way. What previous centuries called ‘morals’ might today be called strategies for managing one’s mental health. As flashbacks of Nisha’s escape from Singapore gradually explain her panic attacks, the book is revealed as a lesson in dealing with trauma and grief. A good read, with a well-taught lesson we can all learn.