Sal

Mick Kitson’s Sal tells the story of two young Scottish sisters who escape from their neglectful mother and abusive stepfather, running away to attempt to survive in the woods. Skilfully addressing incredibly sensitive topics of child abuse and children’s mental health, Kitson manages to remain engaging and not at all patronising – two issues often directed at young adult fiction writers.

At the same time, the text also serves to remind older readers of the childhood freedom that comes with running away from home – except, for our protagonists Sal and Peppa (whose names, I must admit, are gratingly kitsch), the fear of having to return is unsurmountable. The nuanced way that Kitson switches between an exciting story of wild adventure and the extremely serious nature of familial abuse, gives this novel great depth, without it becoming too upsetting to read.

Interestingly, the main characters in this novel are all women, a novelty in young adult fiction. There is no male love interest and no man saves the day; I was surprised when I realised that the author was a man. However, this is a double-edged sword. The first person narrator is  13-year-old Sal, and there were multiple moments where it seemed as though Kitson struggled to accurately represent the point of view of his female teenage lead. One particularly awkward scene, where Sal gets her first period, is excruciatingly misinformed and slightly embarrassing to read. Whilst this is not a good impression to give to any young girls reading this book, it is commendable that Kitson included it – periods being a topic frequently missed in young people’s novels.

Kitson’s characterisation was a little vague throughout however, especially where Sal and Peppa’s characters were concerned. Both are written as mature beyond their years – this could possibly be excused as a product of their horrible upbringing, but it was, at times, difficult to remember that the main characters were supposed to be just thirteen and ten. Furthermore, when writing in the first-person, it is especially important to get the voice of your narrator right, and unfortunately Kitson misses the mark. Nevertheless, there are some aspects of their young personalities that succeed: their swearing and their dialect (much of the speech is written in Scots) show that this novel was not “cleaned up” for its young audience.

Overall, despite some small but significant downfalls, Sal was an undeniably enjoyable story of sisterhood and survival. This is Kitson’s debut novel, and while it has that rough-around-the-edges touch of a new writer, it does not fail to deliver on quality and profound content.

Sal by Mick Kitson. 

(Canongate, 2018)

Image: Canongate. 

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