Sal, by Mick Kitson

Title: Sal

Author: Mick Kitson

Publisher: Canongate, March 2018

Length: 240 pages

Genre: General Fiction, Crime, Survival

Rating: 5/5 – Essential Reading, a Book of the Year contender.

If Sal doesn’t become a modern day classic and a Book of the Year then it’ll be a travesty. It’s a story of survival against sexual abuse, a dysfunctional family and the horrors perpetrated on them by an abuser. It’s a story of a sister going to a mental place where she thinks the unthinkable, prepares and executes a plan to save her family and takes her and the reader into morally grey areas. Normal categories of right and wrong cross boundaries and raise ethical questions that haunt and blur the psychological lines. What would otherwise seem an act of brutal savagery becomes a heroic act but you’re not sure whether you should admit this or not.

It’s the story of thirteen year old Sal and her ten year old sister Peppa escaping their alcoholic mother’s abusive partner and surviving in a Scottish forest. Sal’s remarkable survival skills are learned from YouTube, the SAS Survival Handbook and her trusty Bear Grylls knife! I learned more about the forest and survival in this book than I’ve learned in a hundred television wildlife documentaries! I read a book recently themed around a forest but sometimes felt suffocated under the literary foliage. I didn’t feel that with Sal as the writing is precise and descriptive without being suffocating or claustrophobic.

The story is told from Sal’s perspective and it took me probably too long to realise that I was reading/listening to the mind of someone with special needs who is both deeply disturbed from her experiences and deeply loving and loyal. She has had to grow up far too fast taking on the role of mother to her little sister and even to her own mother. Sal is the adult in the family out of necessity rather than choice in a scenario sadly all too familiar in real life. I could be wrong but I sensed that both Sal and Peppa may be on the Autism/ADHD spectrum but that’s more my own guess. At times I had to remind myself that this is fiction because it felt a bit like reading an extraordinary autobiography.

There is a tension like an electric current between Peppa’s innocently carefree and careless attitude which at times risks revealing their plight, and Sal’s sometimes tense vigilance through her more developed awareness of their predicament. She is the one with most to lose after all. The interaction between Sal and Peppa is one of the driving forces of the book and there are some genuinely funny moments and dialogue revealing both their sisterly bond and at times deep yet innocent immaturity.

It’s an amazing book but it’s not perfect. By the time we meet Ingrid I was too invested in Sal and Peppa’s story and found myself reading Ingrid’s life story sections just to get back to Sal and Peppa. While Ingrid is a compelling character in her own right I felt her back story took attention away from Sal and Peppa. I can see why it’s included, presumably to explain why she is in the forest in the first place and it is fascinating in its own right yet I felt I was being diverted away from the main story. Also while Adam is presumably there to represent a danger to their ‘hidden’ status (and they all fancy him!) I felt his character was the weakest in the book and wasn’t sure if he really needed to be there. The one bit that didn’t work at all for me was the way Sal and co meet their mother again after going on the run. I felt it was very unrealistic and stretched credibility. It’s difficult to say more without going into spoiler territory but I simply felt it was unrealistic.

The book got right back on track when they return to the camp after the rehab adventure and from then on until the end it is once more captivating. The final two chapters are amongst the best I have read in any literature for a long time. I’m not sure I’ve thought more about any other book after finishing it. It is filled with both darkness and light, fear and hope, foreboding and freedom.

I read a review copy and in truth I’m not sure I’d read it again (but I might!) but I will buy a copy as it is one of those books you just want in your collection. If I’m honest I’m quite hard to please as a reader and don’t give five star reviews often. I was considering giving this four stars, knocking off a star for the bits I didn’t quite ‘get’ as outlined above. But a book doesn’t have to be perfect in every way to be outstanding and essential reading so even though I questioned parts of it I still want to give it the full five stars. I could write another thousand words about Sal (and when I pass a forest I’ll always wonder who is in there!) but best you just read it and decide for yourself. Thanks to author Mick Kitson for writing this and I couldn’t help hoping that there might be a sequel relating what happens next. One can only hope!

Rating: 5/5 – Essential Reading

Review via NetGalley/Canongate Books ARC.

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