This is a striking and stark debut novel. It is not without its faults, but its virtues redeem it; rather like its titular character. Sal is a 13-year-old girl whose abuse by her alcoholic mother’s boyfriend leads her to plan his execution. Her particular fear is that he will turn his attentions on her younger half-sister, Peppa.
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly, so it is no spoiler to say the murder happens very early in the book, and there is no doubt about the dispatcher. Sal has been hatching her escape route for years, and the majority of the novel is about what happens thereafter.
Sal is a devotee of survivalist programmes and books – especially the SAS Survival Handbook and (mostly) YouTube vidoes of Bear Grylls, so she dispatches her abuser and heads to the woods of Galloway with her sibling. It is not a plot that does not require a change, and the plot change is not about the sisters.
Quintilian said that the perfection of art was to conceal art. This book is beautifully artless. We learn quickly that Sal is bright and ingenious and also in a school where she is deemed a vulnerable pupil. The entire book is her (unwritten) soliloquy and therefore rests on voice. That voice is beautifully captured in its inelegance. Not only do many sentences start with “And” but it is seemingly Sal’s favourite word. At one point we have her thinking to herself: “The sun started to come up and the sky in the east through the trees got a thin strip of gold along the horizon and then it went bright pink and then silver and the frost sparkled all around the wood.” That sentence captures the dual nature of this work: an un-innocent coming of age story combined with a work of “New Nature Writing”.
It is necessary for the plot that Sal can snare rabbits and catch pike. It is necessary for the plot that she can “read” the land. It might even be necessary that we get details about how to make, rather than go on, a bender. But a dialogue of sisters would always require an intervention, and it comes in the form of Ingrid, a fellow forest-dweller. Ingrid has been, variously, a citizen of East Germany, a local doctor, a defector, a hippy, a car thief and an immunologist. (Which comes in handy, plot-wise). But at root she is just the wise woman in the woods. Her story is useful in expanding the missing children narrative, and she is an engaging presence.
Ingrid introduces them to her Mother God worship in a stone circle, which is perhaps the daftest part of the book, although I did like that Peppa called the Goddess “Cheryl”.
In some ways, this novel seems engineered to be taught. Sal and Peppa – not their actual names – are salt and pepper, are they not? Is that a metaphor? What did you feel about your first menstruation? Has abuse occurred in your family, or in one that you know of? Sal’s exceptional knowledge of how to live without money is both enlightening and, more than once, slightly boring. Ingrid’s long narrative of her life might have been more subtle: bad Stasi versus dirty but good hippies is a dichotomy that means little.
The biggest problem with this book – which I do think should be read and announces a new talent – is the depiction of the child protagonists. Peppa is ten and has thoughts about Kidnapped few ten years old have ever had. Sal is 13 and seems more half Katniss Everdeen and half Holden Caulfield than any young teenager I know. There is a condition I call “preternatural maturity” in some novels, and this one exemplifies it in Sal, if not in Peppa. Peppa just likes to run around and make mistakes.
The best parts of the book are about the Galloway forests, the catch of light, and what it is like to be outside of urban space.
There is a strange angle on sexuality here. Sal is clearly a girl – given her first period, which is related with more detail than needed – but is described as boyish throughout. Is her ability to shoot, kill, survive, plan somehow supposed to make her more masculine? These parts of the book made this reader uncomfortable. Instead of subverting gender stereotypes, this seemed to reinforce them. The depictions of nature are, however, very beautifully done.
This is a novel which had an ending but not a closure. Of course, two children, hiding in a forest, with a friendly witch, was never going to go from “Once upon a time” to “Happily ever after”. Sal sometimes succeeds in her attempts to marry social conscience to the recent way in which we write about the natural environment.
The story has central characters that are resilient and tawdry. It has beautiful descriptions, particularly of badgers and pike and sphagnum moss and the differing types of trees. But in the end, it is not enough.
Book review: Sal, by Mick Kitson, Canongate, £12.99