Fans of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon will be thrilled to learn that the unflinching novel about life in foster care now has a little sister. Sal, the determined protagonist in Mick Kitson’s debut, could easily be mistaken for a younger Anais – both have practical responses to trauma, but also show a more sensitive side when they are alone with the reader. The difference is that Sal has taken matters into her own hands and decided to escape before she and her sister are separated by social services.
This is a story about survival, both in terms of living through harrowing circumstances and also in a more literal sense. To escape an abusive family life, Sal and her sister Peppa run away to the Galloway forest, where they put to use knowledge garnered from Bear Grylls, the SAS Survival Handbook, and YouTube videos to live in the wild.
At times the action seems a little implausible. Although Sal and Peppa’s escape did involve meticulous planning before being put into action, it does seem quite convenient that the scheme went off without a hitch. That their mother turns up just a few miles from where they camp in secret is even more so. It puts the reader in the ludicrous position of feeling like the two sisters have had an easy ride, in spite of the fact that they are running from such horrendous circumstances at home.
That so many of the obstacles the pair face in the forest come to nothing puts the focus much more on Sal’s anxiety – what she calls her “worry” – that threatens to engulf her periodically throughout the book. This is just one of her unique characteristics that make her so three-dimensional to the reader. She is a fully formed young teenage girl with an endless hunger for knowledge, an avid list maker, a fiercely protective sister, and at times falls into dissociative states no doubt caused by trauma. Kitson shows himself to be a truly empathetic writer in his development of Sal’s voice.
The sad thing is that we know that the two sisters cannot run forever. The idyllic sanctuary that they find in Scotland’s countryside is fragile, no matter how incompetent the authorities looking for them seem to be. It gives the story an added poignancy, as we root for the two girls and their right to stay together in the forest whilst knowing that life, even in novels, is never that simple.