The Bitter Side Of Sweet could’ve been sweet

  • Books
  • Thursday, 26 May 2016

These cacao beans end up as sweet, sweet chocolate but how they're harvested tells a bitter tale of forced and child labour, issues that Tara Sullivan weaves into her young adult fiction novel The Bitter Side Of Sweet. Photo: Reuters

The Bitter Side Of Sweet

Writer: Tara Sullivan

Publisher:G.P. Putnam’s Sons, children’s fiction

Tara Sullivan’s The Bitter Side Of Sweet takes us into the dark underbelly of cacao farming in Africa, the fruit that eventually becomes cocoa and is enjoyed by billions around the world in its various forms, especially chocolate.

The story spans just 10 days as we follow Amadou and Seydou, two brothers from Mali, who make their minds up to escape from their enforced slavery on a cacao plantation, all upon meeting Khadija, who was kidnapped.

Sullivan’s no stranger to the “issue novel”. Her 2013 debut Golden Boy focused on the murder of albinos in Tanzania.

Switching to the other side of Africa, The Bitter Side Of Sweet is set on a fictional plantation in Ivory Coast and looks at child slave labour in the chocolate industry.

The book is truly gripping and starts with a bang as we meet our heroes and get into the routine of the terrible life they’re forced to suffer.

Amadou, having been tricked into slavery, has resigned himself to his fate while still trying to keep his little brother Seydou safe.

The arrival of the feisty Khadija reignites his passion for the freedom he believed was dead. What follows is a tale where we cry, gasp and cheer for the three children as they take their lives back into their hands and plot their escape.

Sullivan is truly descriptive in her prose. She builds a solid picture of the heat and environment of the plantation, as well as the horrific situation of the child slaves.

Beatings await the boys who don’t make quota or step out of line. Pythons, vipers, leopards and vicious wild pigs are in the bush surrounding the plantation making escape nearly impossible.

Even better is her rendition of her heroic characters. Amadou is the caring but guilt-ridden brother. Seydou idolises his older brother. Khadija earns the nickname “Wildcat” for her ferocious desire to break free of forced slave labour.

It was easy to fall for all of Sullivan’s main characters and, as intended, to think more clearly about how chocolate is produced and what we could be contributing to with our consumption of it. But this is where The Bitter Side Of Sweet also fails.


The book starts as a fast-paced thriller for teens, but in its final chapters the story sadly devolves into an after-school special that tries to deliver a very special message.

Rather than letting the tale lead us to our own realisation, Sullivan makes it a point to hammer home its message in those last pages.

Frankly, The Bitter Side Of Sweet would have had a stronger finish if we got to put the book down, think about the issue brought to light by the novel, and then act upon it ourselves.

To that end, just her “Author’s Note” after the epilogue would have sufficed. In it, Sullivan prompts us to look for things like “Fair Trade” chocolate which guarantees that the product was sourced from plantations that don’t use child slaves or forced labour. She encourages us to visit her website,, for more ideas on how to end child slavery.

Without giving away too many spoilers, what the book has instead is a ham-fisted ending that sours the story: Wouldn’t you know it, there’s a reporter who just happens to be working on a story about forced labour on cacao farms who’s been unable to get information on child slaves.

Then our normally verbally succinct heroes are suddenly burdened with long, clunky exposition dialogue about their amazement that thousands of kids are working in the same conditions as them, and how their story must also be told.

Intended for readers aged 12 upwards, The Bitter Side Of Sweet could work in a classroom where students had to discuss the issues presented in the novel.

But the sad thing is the book could have been so much more, if only the ending wasn’t quite so pat.

Having started out so sweetly, those last pages are the bitter side of The Bitter Side Of Sweet.

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