On the pile in December, where we preview what we are reading and chew over what we’ve read, I said that this book was a story of running away and survival. I was wrong, really. It is about survival, but not about running away. Actually it is the most ‘stand up and face it’ book I have read about the chilling subject of child abuse (and not that many authors like to tackle that subject — even writing about it is difficult, never mind having to live through it). So what about following up with murder? How does that change things? As the narrator Sal puts it, with numbing simplicity, it almost improves them.
“The hardest thing about killing Robert was not doing it or telling Peppa I was going to do it, it was telling Peppa what Robert had been doing to me and how he said he was going to start doing it to her. When I told her she said ‘Kill him Sal’ and I said ‘Aye’.”
This is an unusual book, both in its approach to the subject and in the way it is written, laconically, like someone who has stepped back from the pain and thinks in terms of practicalities. Sal is a thirteen-year-old girl who decides to run away with her younger sister and live in the wilds of Scotland, fleeing an abusive stepfather and a neglectful mother. The Scottish setting stands in sharp contrast to the rest. Glorious and mystical, it scoops the two girls up and transports them from the life they left behind, which was frankly horrendous. But the theme of survival does not change for that; where before they had to survive their childhood, now they have to survive the wilderness. In comparison this seems almost easy, even though Sal has spent the best part of the year preparing for it.
In essence, Sal is a provocative book. I say this because our usual conception of child abuse is that it makes the vulnerable even more vulnerable — and yet the protagonists of this novel ultimately emerge victorious after an experience that should have made them suicidal and fragile. Instead, author Mick Kitson has them measuring up to Bear Grylls. And the fact that we applaud Sal for her courage has to prompt the question, isn’t it better therapy to kill your sex attacker rather than spend the rest of your life living in his shadow? And does that make you a murderer or a kind of warped survival hero? The latter, affirms Kitson, or so it seems, and I can only agree with him. Even when Sal confronts her mother towards the end of the story, she does not cave in. Protect and survive, survive and protect.
“I kept the gun on her. My heart was beating hard. ‘Were ye going for a drink?’ I said.”
Sal’s mother, Maw, is an alcoholic. It does redeem her to some degree from being a bad mother, which is just as well because the girls need her. Sal needs her, even if she hauls her mother from the brink mostly for her sister’s benefit. The force of sisterly love that flows through this book holds the girls together, and does much to calm anxiety over the final outcome. Will the sisters be split up? Sal is afraid that they will, which is why she makes her plan. Separation is the fear that flows through the story, and in that fear the real vulnerability lurks. One sister is the strength of the other; alone they can survive but not divided. Sal has been looking after her younger sister ever since she was born, playing the part her mother couldn’t fill.
Any Cop?: Perceptive and distinctive in tone, the narrative holds you in its Scottish setting not only with the descriptions, which are pure and evocative, but also with the dialogue, which, like Sal, does not pull its punches. Expect expletives, and pick up a few survival tips. Nice debut by Mr Kitson. Hope he writes more.