The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan
Reviewed by Ouyang
The Bitter Side of Sweet is a thrilling novel written by Tara Sullivan, the daughter of international aid workers who was born in India and grew up in Bangladesh, Ecuador, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic. Quite fittingly, her story is about one of the many neglected issues of the modern world: chocolate. Specifically, the use of slavery on cocoa farms. Through three West African children’s suffering and mischief, the complexity of this modern-day humanitarian crisis is explored. The book tackles the subject in a way that is exhilarating and though-provoking, which all goes to show how black-and-white this issue isn’t.
Malian Amadou and his brother Seydou have been working on a cocoa farm in Ivory Coast for the past two years. Originally looking for work and by extension, money to bring home, both brothers have worked tirelessly from sunset to sundown each day, in brutal conditions, with no pay. The children are beaten if they are disobedient, or if they have not made “quota”, whatever that may be.
Then, a girl arrives, presumably Malian, whose name is Khadija. From the moment that Amadou and Seydou meet her, it is clear that she does not fit in. Not only due to her gender, but because she is not willing to work, which is really odd since children voluntarily come to the plantation. As she is not willing to work, Khadija has a fierce personality and tries to escape every day, no matter the consequences. At first, this angers Amadou because he is somehow held responsible for her. Both Amadou and Khadija are severely punished every time she tries to escape. Because of this, he helps the authorities to keep an eye on her. At first, this makes the two enemies, but Khadija’s wildcat-like spirit restores some faith in him and the two start to get close. Ironically, it is only when the authorities have truly broken Khadija that Amadou decides to leave for good, taking his brother and her along.
From here, the story becomes an exhilarating series of mischievous acts, as Amadou, Seydou and Khadija set plantations on fire, sneak into houses, hide in the backs of trucks and run from kidnappers. The suspenseful situations that the three characters always get in are what keep the story moving and keep the reader glued to the pages. The children’s adventure can almost be interpreted as a secret agent movie of sorts. While the children are being chased after by authority figures, Amadou, Seydou and Khadija are not rich white men in suits. Rather, they are lonely and piteous children, whom are living witnesses of the suffering that accompanies the economic benefits of cheap labour. Not only is this story full of action and thrill, it is full of statements regarding the convoluted nature of unfair labour.
Though Amadou spends the larger part of the novel escaping from the cocoa plantation he works in, he does not see the people who run the farm as the “bad guys”. In fact, from reading the novel, it is clear that no one is exclusively a “bad guy” in the context of the forced labour which the three children are in. It is revealed that even the people who run the farm get very little money from their trade and therefore must resort to forced labour, even if the brand-name chocolate factories are swimming in cash. It seems that economic inequality is one of the main causes of the problems in this story. This theme can even be applied to the relationship between Amadou and Seydou, the two poor Malian brothers, Amadou and Seydou and Khadija, who turns out to be a rich Ivorian who has a maid. Their relationship is constantly strained by this class difference and causes the two brothers to make many assumptions about Khadija.
The Bitter Side of Sweet is a wonderful book which thoroughly delves into the topic of forced labour in West Africa. The plot is exciting and suspenseful while acknowledging the serious problems that many children living in the region still face today. Overall, this novel is an absolute must-read.