Coming of Age

Girl Out of Place


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A coming of age story all about finding your place, your strength and your home.


A coming-of-age story set during the liberation of Indonesia (formerly the Dutch East Indies).

At the end of the war, Nell is released from a Japanese internment camp in Java. While searching for her father in the chaos, she meets Tim, a young man who is looking for his family too. Nell’s journey takes her first to Singapore then to a new life and new friends in Sydney, Australia. But although Tim may well be the love of her life, her father puts her on a passenger liner bound for the Netherlands. Will Nell really be able to settle in a country she’s never known – and will she ever see Tim again?

Based on the true story of Nora Valk, this is an exciting tale of courage and friendship, hope and determination, about the search for love and a place to finally call home.

Girl Out of Place begins at the end of World War 2 and follows 15 year old Nell as she is released from a Japanese prisoner camp in Java along with her aunt. Upon release she starts on a journey with her aunt to find a safe place to stay which takes them to Singapore in search for her father who was also imprisoned during the war in Japan. Inspired by a real story, this is the starting point for a coming of age narrative which shows Nell struggling to find a place to call home as her adventures take her to Australia and the Netherlands too.

I really enjoyed the variety of settings in this story and thought that each location in Nell's journey was depicted really well. The frequent changes to her circumstances made for an engaging and interesting read too, while also showing the impact of this disruption on Nell's sense of belonging.

At the beginning of the story Nell meets a young man called Tim who is on a similar mission to find his family and his home. After an initial intimate encounter, their paths continue to cross throughout the book and we see their romantic relationship develop. I liked the inclusion of this in the story however I felt that Tim could have been more detailed as a character to really bring their relationship to life in the story.

The pacing of this book was fast and there is a lot of action packed into what is actually quite a short book. I did not mind this as it felt fitting for the tone of the story however I did wish the pacing was a bit slower towards the end of the book as quite a few crucial moments in the plot felt glossed over in a race to reach the final conclusion.

Overall this was an enjoyable book and I liked seeing Nell's character growth throughout the book. Starting with typical teenage characteristics we see her change through her experiences and find her voice and strength which enables her to stand up for what she wants out of life and to choose her own place to call home.

Thank you to Reedsy Discovery and Aurora Metro Books for the ARC.

Reviewed by

I have quite a broad taste in books but, in particular, I enjoy reading historical fiction, women's fiction, literary fiction, and classics. I also enjoy some middle grade, romance and contemporary fiction too.


A coming-of-age story set during the liberation of Indonesia (formerly the Dutch East Indies).

At the end of the war, Nell is released from a Japanese internment camp in Java. While searching for her father in the chaos, she meets Tim, a young man who is looking for his family too. Nell’s journey takes her first to Singapore then to a new life and new friends in Sydney, Australia. But although Tim may well be the love of her life, her father puts her on a passenger liner bound for the Netherlands. Will Nell really be able to settle in a country she’s never known – and will she ever see Tim again?

Based on the true story of Nora Valk, this is an exciting tale of courage and friendship, hope and determination, about the search for love and a place to finally call home.


I was fifteen and I had never kissed a boy. Of course, there

were no boys of my age to kiss, because I was living in a

dreadful internment camp, deep in the jungle, somewhere in

the mountains beyond Semarang. We were prisoners of the

Japanese army, which had occupied the island of Java a few

years before, forcing many of us Westerners into detention

camps, like this one at Ambarawa. It’s not a place I like to

think about, now, as life there was harsh and sometimes cruel.

We all prayed for the war to be over, so we could go back

home to our house in Jogjakarta. But then, not long after the

Japs surrendered, the day came when my aunt told me quietly,

‘Nell, we’re leaving, tomorrow. Make sure you pack everything

and you’re ready to go.’

You’d think I would have been excited and had all my stuff

packed in a flash. But no, I really didn’t want to go. You see, I

couldn’t abandon my mother, who lay all alone in a bamboo

coffin under the ground. She had been buried in the open field

beside the yard, where we used to stand in rows for hours

every morning to bow to the Japs. She’d been dead for three

months by then. But still, I found it hard to leave.

Aunt Karly explained to me that the allies had dropped

bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Japan, which had ended

the war. But the Japs were still there in the camp because they

had to protect us from the Indonesian people, who wanted

their independence from the Dutch. I hated politics. And all

the strife. It only led to war. And you lost the people you loved

the most.

‘Now that we can go, we’re leaving no matter what

happens,’ said Aunt Karly, firmly.

That’s why I’d woken up really early that morning. The sun

had just risen and was beginning to warm the field. The dreary

camp was quiet. Most people still lay under their mosquito

nets, but I’d gone outside in my underwear.

The building used to be a Catholic school, and this was

one of the classrooms. I was standing in the doorway of

classroom 4G. The Japs had very cleverly arranged wooden

bunks along the walls and even right in the middle of the

room. That way, they could cram as many people as possible

into one room. I had a small mattress on the bunk along the

left side where I slept under a mosquito net beside my aunt.

Our few belongings were stowed beneath our bunk. There

were even more people crammed onto the bunk next to us.

Alert to all the sounds, I leaned against the outer wall of

the classroom. All I could see was the steeple of the school

chapel and the peaks of the surrounding mountains. Some

days, the clouds completely covered them. The barbed wire

fence and the guards in their watch towers usually meant that

everyone stayed in their rooms. Today I wanted to absorb

everything. I wanted to be able to tell people what this place

was really like, and I didn’t want to forget a single thing. I

listened to the silence. The mountains, the camp buildings and

the watch towers still had to shake off the lingering darkness

and resume their usual place in the world. Ever since the day

my mother had ceased to be there beside me in the tiny bed in

classroom 4G, ever since she had been taken away to be laid in

the field, I often got up before dawn.

Because I was leaving, I wanted to remember every

detail of this place. How the first ray of sunlight tinged the

morning sky with shades of purple while the same light made

the mountains glow white. It was that time of the day when

everything seemed possible and the violet light softened

everything. It was as if my mother was still here, as if she

could touch me and I could feel her. We were very similar,

my mother and me. We both tended to be impatient – and to

be honest, I was much more impatient than my mother. We

had the same slender build, the same unruly mass of brownish

curls, the same amber-coloured eyes, the same crease between

our eyebrows that appeared when we were worrying about


Could I really leave this place? For years, I’d prayed to

be able to go. Away from the dirt and the unbearable stench,

away from the single cold water tap in the camp, which usually

wasn’t working. I was always thirsty. I was always hungry. There

was never enough food. Yes, of course Aunt Karly and I had

to get out of here. Now that the war was over, I wanted to

look for my father. I needed to know where he was. I wanted

to feel his arms around me. I wanted to hear his voice again,

gently teasing me ‘And how is my little Nelly today?’ I wanted

to go back to the time when everything was safe, and we were

all still living together. That was three years ago, three years

since I’d seen him. I had to hurry, pack my few things, and get

out. Mustn’t waste any time! I went inside and took my things

out from under the mosquito net. Of course, my father didn’t

know the worst thing of all − that on 26th April we’d carried

my mother out of the camp to lay her in the field beyond and

that I was now alone with my aunt. Mustn’t think about that now.

It would only make me cry and I didn’t want to cry anymore. I

had to get ready to leave.

I laid our little saucepan and our two cups out on a piece

of batik cloth. On top of that I laid my threadbare and now,

much too short, blue skirt together with a white vest. Then I

rolled up my mosquito net and placed it on top of the other

things. Lastly, I put my mother’s smart woollen coat on top

of the pile, and I tried to tie the corners of the cloth into

a bundle. Why was I having so much trouble? I was trying

to do it too fast, of course. I had to put everything together

again neatly and pull really hard on the corners of the cloth

to be able to tie them together. ‘A beautiful bungkusan,’ my

mother would have said. Mustn’t think about it. I pulled on my

green skirt and white blouse, slipped on my worn sandals, and

walked out of the room.

Outside, at the corner of the yard, a young Jap was standing

guard. It was the same young man who, three months ago, had

walked with my aunt and me behind the bamboo coffin. An

Indonesian had pushed the coffin on a cart over to the field.

There, the coffin had disappeared into a shallow hole. My eyes

searched once more for the right spot in the grassy field. I had

no choice but how could I leave my mother behind over there?

All alone.

Why was everything so complicated? Staying here or

going. The young Jap soldier stood there exactly as he had

always stood there, but he wasn’t looking as severe as before.

Just now, I hadn’t bowed for him and I hadn’t been punished.

He hadn’t beaten me, but had just ignored me, pretended he

hadn’t seen me. Although his emperor had capitulated a week

ago, he couldn’t get away from here either. He had no choice

but to stay where he was.

Aunt Karly came to stand next to me. The dress she was

wearing with the frayed white collar was much too big for her,

but she still looked pretty. The faded blue dress matched the

colour of her eyes. She wore her hair in a plait down her back

and for the first time I noticed that she’d gone almost entirely

grey. When had that happened? She put an arm around me,

and we stood like that for a moment, as if frozen in time.

Then my aunt pulled away.

‘You know, you really are allowed to leave.’

I didn’t react.

‘I’m certain your mother would want us to get away from


‘How do you know that?’ I mumbled.

‘Because I know Elenore really well. We have to leave here

now that we have the chance. Believe me, going to Surabaya is

the best option.’

I was silent. Tears burned behind my eyes, but I willed

them away. It was true. I couldn’t stay. I had to get away from

here. My aunt always knew what was right. She never doubted

herself, or worried about the risk − she just did what she felt

was necessary.

I went inside and tried to muster my courage. I looked at

the mosquito nets, the mattresses, the shabby things stored

under the bunks. I listened to the sounds of the children

playing outside. I registered all those ordinary goings on and

pulled myself together.

‘Alright. Let’s get out of here,’ I said, with a croaky voice.

It sounded braver than I felt.

‘But I can’t leave without saying goodbye to Lisa, first.’ My

friend, Lisa, with her deep blue eyes, black plaits and gangly

body. We’d worked together in the camp kitchen and I was

really fond of her. I’d had a lot of laughs with Lisa de Vries.

She was an only child, too, and her father had died when she

was little. Her mother had never remarried. I couldn’t leave

without saying goodbye.

‘I’ll be right back,’ I said, and ran off.


Saying you are leaving is not the same thing as actually leaving!

I stood with my aunt in the yard and felt sick. I hadn’t been

able to find Lisa anywhere. ‘Please, can’t we wait just a little

longer?’ I asked. ‘Perhaps she’ll turn up somewhere.’

‘No, we really have to go now,’ she said. ‘We’re already late.’

I sighed. ‘So, can we just walk out of the gate now? Why

didn’t we do that before?’

‘You know that wasn’t possible before. You would have

been killed immediately. They would have beaten us to

death,’ she said with a determined look on her face. ‘Now

that it turns out that their emperor is not as invincible as

they thought he was, things have changed. They won’t stop

us. Not if they’re sensible. They’d rather make themselves

invisible and keep quiet.’

I grabbed hold of her hand. ‘Thank goodness you’re older

and braver than I am. And you know what to do.’

Aunt Karly laughed. ‘That remains to be seen, but I’m

doing my best. The first thing is to walk out of this camp

without being arrested. Come on, let’s go.’

Together we walked to the gate. I held on to my little

bundle tightly with one hand and clutched Aunt Karly’s arm

with the other. The watchtowers were placed in such a way

that no one could leave the camp unseen. The guards must

have been watching us all along, but they didn’t show it. They

didn’t react, didn’t protest, didn’t try to stop us. I looked at

Aunt Karly. She nodded at me. ‘Keep walking.’

She looked very determined. I thought she knew what she

was doing, but I sensed her nervousness in her footsteps as

we passed through the gate to the other side of the gedek, the

bamboo fencing around the camp. My heart was beating twice

as fast as normal and I felt the blood pounding in my temples.

Sweat trickled down my back. When we were finally on the

other side of the gate my aunt stopped and loosened my grip

on her arm. My fingers had left white marks.

‘Well done, Nell,’ she said, encouragingly.

I wanted to look back at the open field where my mother

lay, but I didn’t dare to. I put my bundle down and rubbed my

aunt’s arm.

‘I’m sorry I squeezed you so hard. I was so scared that

we would be arrested, but there isn’t a single Jap who took

any notice!’ I looked at the people from the camp who had

gathered by the gedek. Even at this early hour, people were

busy bargaining with people from outside the camp, trading

their meagre belongings for food.

‘Look at that!’ I cried, excitedly. ‘Two eggs for a worn shirt.

A cup of rice for an old pair of shorts.’ Normally the Japs

punished bartering harshly, but now they looked away and

didn’t bother.

‘We have to keep going,’ said Aunt Karly. ‘Come on! Keep

walking! We’re the first to leave the camp today. We have to get

to Ambarawa station early. I want to catch the train as soon

as possible.’

I picked up my bundle and hurried on. I felt the eyes of

the guards boring into my back and I wanted to turn around,

but I didn’t dare to, in case they came after us.

‘Don’t worry about them,’ said Aunt Karly. She clenched

her hands into fists. ‘They’re not going to drag us back into the

camp and they’re not going to leave us standing in the middle

of that sweltering hot yard tied to a post all day as punishment

anymore. They’re not going to leave us doubled up in a crate

for a few days anymore either. Now that they’ve been beaten,

they’re not allowed to do that. Although, of course, you can

never be sure with those Japs. Just keep up with me, Nell, and

don’t stop.’

I did as she asked. I tried not to look back and to think

of other things. But it was difficult, because my whole being

was screaming that I had to look back one last time at the

grassy field where my mother lay. So as not to think about

that, I changed the subject: ‘It looks different to when we

arrived here.’

‘There’s only one road from the station to the Ambarawa

camp. Three years ago, it was almost dark and a lot cooler

when we arrived.’

‘Yes, it’s sweltering now. Back then, I thought that the war

would be over soon and that I’d be home in a few weeks. I

didn’t know any better.’

‘We all thought that.’

I sighed. I was terribly hot and was finding it increasingly

difficult to keep on walking and to keep up with my aunt’s

pace. The sun was right overhead, and the sweat was running

down my back. My bundle felt even heavier. I moved it to my

other hand. On our way here, a long time ago now, my mother

had carried most of our belongings. My mother… Mustn’t

think about her. Mustn’t look round to try and catch a last glimpse of

the little field where she lay, abandoned.

I thought of Orpheus. My father liked telling me that

story. He told me that he loved my mother just as much as

Orpheus loved his wife Eurydice. ‘Do you know the story

about Orpheus, Auntie? It was mine and Dad’s favourite.’

‘Do tell!’ she said, sensing that I was looking for distraction

and glad that we could talk about something else.

‘Orpheus was inconsolable when his beloved bride,

Eurydice, died on the day of their wedding, and he cried so

much that eventually his tears softened the hearts of the gods.

He was allowed to bring her back from the underworld on

condition that he would come all the way back to the upper

world without once glancing back at Eurydice, who was

walking behind him out of Hades.’

‘But Orpheus looked back, didn’t he?’

‘Yes, he ruined everything by looking round and then his

beloved bride was gone. Disappeared forever.’

‘But you can look back at your mother’s grave, you know.’

I looked at my aunt, angrily. ‘I do know that my mother is

not going to come back to life whether I look back there or

not. I know perfectly well that people don’t rise from the dead.

Not Eurydice, and not my mother, but if I look around, the

Japs might see me and take me back.’

It was not until these last words came out that I realized

that I was shouting. I threw my bundle down into the road.

Two birds with blue feathers flapped out of a coconut palm.

I watched them go as the tears ran down my face. Two little

heads with a white spot and a black circle around the eyes, a

red bill and little red legs: paddy birds. My mother would have

called them glatiks. She never wanted me to use the Dutch

names for native birds.

‘Let’s swap over, you’re carrying too much.’ Aunt Karly

took off her rucksack and put it down next to my bundle. I

wanted to object, to say that I wanted to carry my own stuff,

but before I could say anything, she had already picked up my


‘What have you got in there?’

I didn’t answer but watched as my aunt pulled my bundle

apart. ‘No wonder this is so heavy. Why did you bring along

that woollen coat?’

I didn’t say anything, not even that that was a stupid

question. My mother had lugged that coat all the way to

Ambarawa. My father had given her that coat as a gift in

America and now it had to be taken back to him. Auntie

smoothed the coat with both hands. Her hands were trembling.

She bent over, put her face into the soft woollen material, just

like I often did, but without anyone noticing. Then Aunt Karly

pulled herself upright. ‘Silly of me. Of course, that coat has to

come with us.’ I saw that there were tears in her eyes. ‘Goodbye

Elenore, goodbye my dear friend,’ she whispered, so softly

that it was barely audible. Then she tied up the bundle, tighter

than necessary. ‘Let’s go.’

I picked up the rucksack and as I slung it over my shoulder,

a sudden urge made me look back. Ambarawa already lay far

behind us. In the distance, the top of the small white church

steeple was just visible, and my mother had disappeared


About the author

Syl van Duyn is author of four Dutch language children’s book as well as an adult non-fiction book based on the columns she wrote for the Dutch magazine Margriet (2001). She works for the Dutch broadcasting network VPRO, selecting and purchasing documentaries, and lives in Amsterdam. view profile

Published on September 25, 2020

Published by Aurora Metro Books

60000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Coming of Age

Reviewed by

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