Sal is like a Wes Anderson film but with more grit. It has all of the quirkiness and off beat humour, but it also has a serious edge and emotional depth. Sal takes her younger sister Peppa out into the Scottish wilderness not for an adventure but to escape. There is a novelty to their life among the trees – no school, no teachers, no rules – but there’s a gravity to it as well. For Sal, survival is her top priority and she achieves it will a practicality and focus that most adults lack.
They have left Glasgow behind, to start life afresh. Since their mother’s alcoholism has escalated and her partner has set his sights on Sal, there home life has been reduced to a cycle of abuse. Sal has protected Peppa from the worst of it, closed doors, fitted locks, kept her mouth shut, but when it seems as if even that won’t be enough she meticulously plans their escape. Even when they have made it out of the city Sal is ever vigilant. Her instinct to protect Peppa is so ingrained it’s become second nature. She gives the largest portion of the food to her, hands over her clothes to keep her warm, tells her stories and distracts her from the consequences of their actions. Peppa is a bright and vibrant little girl, bursting with energy and imagination because Sal has bared the brunt of abuse.
Technology, specifically the internet plays an interesting part in the novel despite their isolation. In the weeks leading up to their departure, Sal has developed an almost encyclopedic knowledge of outdoor survival. Thanks to YouTube she knows how to cure animal skins, lay a trap and build a shelter. The internet is an endless tool in Sal used for learning.
Strangers infiltrate Sal and Peppa’s hideaway, but they are surprising in their kindness and empathy. Ingrid becomes a surrogate grandmother to the children who have never really had a family. She lives out in the woods by choice and her life story is colourful and varied. As a child who grew up amongst the rubble of Berlin she knows what it is like to be parent-less, to find yourself unable to rely on adults much less trust them.
The narrative voice is well-realised. Sal is a girl uneasy with words, whose been told so often not to speak, and there’s an awkwardness to the prose and a spareness of punctuation that is entirely fitting. She’s blunt, honest, intelligent and despite her toughness you can still glimpse the child underneath.