Mick Kitson’s debut novel Sal, out this March from Canongate, tells the story of eponymous teenager Salmarina, who after enduring years of abuse by her mother’s boyfriend is forced to take matters into her own hands when he threatens her younger sister, Peppa. She must stop him and flee and, at all costs, she and Peppa must stay together. The book follows the girls’ flight into the depths of the Galloway forest park. Kitson’s spare, McCarthyesque prose tugs the reader along with highly textured procedural details; the making of a camp, the building of a shelter, the gutting of an animal–or a man.
Despite the violence of the story’s inciting incident, there’s a sense of rightness to the events in Sal. This is one of Kitson’s greatest successes; there is never any question of the reader siding with the authority figures in the book, who are all shown to be at best incompetent and at worst outright abusive. Instead, the reader can see clearly the structural disadvantages that have led the characters to where they are, and our sense of morality is realigned to lie firmly alongside Sal’s personal, anarchic one.
Sal herself is a solemn and slightly neurotic narrator whose honest and exacting voice brings the story to vibrant life. Kitson plausibly renders the inner life of a teenager in extraordinary circumstances. Sal at first seems infallible, with her encyclopedic knowledge of tracking, trapping and survival skills, but her character is soon shown to have blind spots and weaknesses that both complicate the story and add emotional depth that would have been lacking if the protagonist were an adult.
All in all, Sal is a true page-turner; I finished in no time flat. The story carries the reader along in a rush of sensory detail, and Kitson takes care to deal sensitively with serious issues from abuse to alcoholism to mental illness. The complex, dynamic girl protagonist, backed by a cast composed nearly entirely of women, makes for an uplifting, strongly feminist read.
Sal is published by Canongate Books on 1st March 2018.