Sal, Mick Kitson’s debut novel is set in Scotland. It’s a first-person narrative about Sal, a thirteen-year-old kid trying to take care of her sister Peppa, who’s only ten. When I picked it up, it reminded me a bit of Sylvia Hehir’s, soon to be released, debut novel, Safe Ground, before it was Sea Change I’d read a few bits and very early drafts of Dr Hehir’s novel and I look forward to reading more.
Sal’s story is simple to explain. She kills her mum’s boyfriend because Robert is a paedophile who tells her he’s going to start on Peppa, now that she’s old enough. Their mum is an alcoholic and doesn’t know about anything but drink.
There’s a lot Sal’s mum doesn’t know. Sal is dyslexic, probably on the autistic spectrum, but a prodigy that can turn her hand to most things. Nobody will split her and her sister up. Sal will take care of Peppa and she’s learned enough from YouTube videos and the SAS Survival Handbook to live off the land.
I worried about the fire and people seeing it, not so much in the day but at night. It your woods dry there isn’t a lot of smoke from a small pyramid fire, it’s just smoky if the wood was wet or too new. And also the wind blows it away. And also we were in The Last Great Wilderness in the UK and we were exactly eight miles from the nearest human habitation and roughly four miles from a forestry track and five miles from a road…
The sun was up now and it was bright through the trees and steam was lifting off the wood floor in little white wisps.
I’m not sure about the transition from present tense to past tense. And if I was being picky you don’t pay for internet access in libraries as Sal does, the constant repetition to SAS Survival Handbook and Bears Grylls doesn’t need to be hammered. The reader gets it.
Everything else seems to be going swimmingly, too much so for my liking. As soon as Sal puts out a wire trap a large rabbit jumps into it. She skins it and they eat it. Rods go into the clear water and they pull out fish. And it’s too good to be true. Then they catch a pike. A gigantic pike with big teeth. Haul it ashore. Job done. Another fine catch.
First major setback. Peppa is too eager to help and the pike bites her. Sal has prepared for that too. She has bandages and iodine and painkillers and antibiotics, but it’s not enough, she needs to trek into town and get more.
The unicorn appears. Well, not an actual unicorn, but an old witchy woman the just happened to be a qualified doctor that is living off-grid in a nearby bender. She has treated other patients who were bitten by pike and happens to have the surgical instrument that are needed to lance the wound and remove pike’s teeth that are brittle, break off, and cause infections. The unicorn’s story must become their story.
The unicorn is a defector from the East Berlin and the Stasi state. She agrees to help them, mother them and keep their secret. A real unicorn would not be allowed to practice as a General Practioner in our NHS after a year’s training. I’m sure the BMA would have something to say about that.
In a way the reader knows how the story is going to end. Murder is murder, even of a paedo that deserves it, and Sal will need to face the forces of law and order. Her mum is drying out and she’s the key to their future and that of a happy ending. Fairytale stuff, the question you’ve got to ask, does it happen? Aye, of course, it does, every day, but not in this magical way. Can the characters of Sal and Peppa and the witchy woman also carry the story to its conclusion. Aye, again. More power to the Sal and Pepper’s of this world.