I don’t often cry when reading but close to the end of SAL I couldn’t stop the tears. This a stand-out novel that I plucked on a whim from Netgalley (my thanks to the publisher, Canongate). Mick Kitson’s debut novel, (published in March in hardback) is literary fiction with an element of crime fiction – it’s also a coming of age novel narrated in the highly distinctive voice of 13-year-old Sal, who has fled from neglect and abuse to the wilderness of the Forest of Galloway, Scotland with her younger half-sister Peppa.
I admit that early in the first chapter, the precisely detailed, emotion-avoidant account by a girl who apparently has some form of autistic disorder had me going ‘What the heck?’ But by the end of the first chapter, when Sal casually slips in what she did to her alcoholic mother’s abusive drug-addict boyfriend – I was hooked. In this chapter we learn that Robert the boyfriend has been sexually abusing Sal since she was 10; Sal fears he will start abusing Peppa soon. After months of meticulously planning their escape (reading the SAS survival handbook, reading Wikipedia entries and watching Ray Mears videos on You Tube on how to start fires and make shelters out of trees) Sal sets off to the UK’s ‘last great wilderness’ with Peppa, a Bear Grylls knife and other essential provisions in a couple of rucksacks.
*POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT*
Oh yes, and before leaving the house she kills Robert, making sure that the police will know she was the one responsible. After talking about killing rabbits she says: “I wouldn’t mind killing one. I had never killed one. Or anything apart from Robert.” I was worried about giving too much away by referring to this, but have as it’s pretty important and comes early on, at the end of chapter one. (One of my few criticisms of the novel is that I didn’t feel that Sal’s motive for this was sufficiently strong, or sufficiently explained.)
*END OF ALERT*
The story begins a short period after the sisters arrived in the forest (visible from space as a dark patch, apparently, also a Dark Sky park for the astronomically minded). Sal has carefully chosen the exact spot in the forest and plans to survive there indefinitely. No one knows where they are, Sal hopes, especially the police who she thinks may well be after them. There’s copious detail about making ‘benders’ (out of larch and spruce I think) to sleep in and other survival stuff, which girly types may be tempted to skip. Not just women of course. However, I found some of the information quite interesting, and you never know when it might come in handy 🙂
The novel is carefully structured with much tension coming from the predicament of the two youngsters. Though the suspense mostly isn’t at nail-biting levels, I was constantly wondering if they would be caught and what might happen to them.
After getting used to it I adored the narrative style, which is refreshingly informal and appears childishly straightforward much of the time. Sal says it like it is, saying what happened without explicitly mentioning her feelings or anyone else’s. She may be a child still, one who has been deemed ‘vulnerable’ by her school, presumably due to her autism (this isn’t spelt out) but she has a great deal more wisdom than some of the adults she describes. Over the course of the novel we learn more about the girls’ situation at home and what led to their escape – their mother is shown without blame attached as a victim of alcohol who lets her own needs and those of her daughters come after her boyfriend’s. At one point, Sal takes issue with people who overvalue the importance of an emotional response; in her view actions and thoughts are more important than feelings. It is hard to argue with this. The extreme reining-in of emotion in the storyteller has paradoxically resulted in a strongly affecting novel.
The relationship between the two sisters is beautifully shown. Sal’s need to protect her innocent, exuberant half sister as she has from early in Peppa’s life drives her actions from the start. The snatches of conversation between them are full of earthy humour and teasing, as here when Sal describes how they set up camp below a hill with a stone circle on top, which she located using a ‘nicked’ Ordnance Survey map from the library.
“We were exactly half a mile into the forest behind a ridge that runs towards the top where it is just under 3000 feet. In fact, in another 28 feet it would be a munro and there would be all wankers in cagoules going up it. [The hill] “is pronounced Magna Bra. I told Peppa and she wanted to go there because I told her Magna means big in Latin and she was delighted and skipped about going ‘Big Bra… big bra’. She’s a dirty minded wee bastard and she wants to watch her swearing.”
We go on a journey with Sal – a physical one, also a psychological and a spiritual one – as she tries to keep her sister safe in an unfamiliar environment. Along the way they meet a German woman, a pagan, previously a doctor and a defector from the former GDR. There are many wonderfully funny moments that lift the tone well away from any lingering bleakness, and some unexpectedly tender and moving ones.
I found SAL inspiring. The novel will stay with me a long time and deserves to be a big hit. It’s interesting too that a man wrote it, given the female-heavy list of main characters. (Your comments most welcome on that, or anything else! Click on the button below.) Oh and I forgot to mention, the description of the Galloway wilderness will make you yearn to go take a look – it did me anyway. I wonder if they allow camping…
Meet The Author event with me at Archway Library
Open to all. I’ll be answering questions from Archway book club and anyone else there, and talking about my debut novel. Here’s the snazzy poster:
Blind Side still 99p/99c
My publisher has told me they are keeping the BLIND SIDE e-book at this price for a while longer as they have something in mind that they hope will get it leaping up the charts again. I said, sure, go ahead! Will wait to see what happens… Meanwhile if anyone hasn’t bought BLIND SIDE yet, here’s the universal Amazon link: geni.us/bldsd (paperback & e-book) – or get a paperback from your local bookshop/library (UK only).