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Publishing: 9th July 2020, Bloomsbury
When the going gets tough, Charlie gets going...
Twelve year old Charlie Merriem is filled with excitement at the arrival of the baby brother he has always dreamed of. But when he discovers baby Dara is seriously ill Charlie's fears overwhelm him and he flees to his safe place - Mandel Forest.
But when Charlie finds an ancient deer tooth, he is suddenly whisked back in time to the Stone Age. There the forest holds dangers Charlie could never have dreamed of and a boy who needs his help.
By helping Harby find his family, will Charlie find a way back home to his? And will he find the strength to face his deepest fears?
This story contains all the ingredients for a fantastic adventure: wolves, storms, shadows and oodles of danger. However, the external obstacles are nothing compared to Charlie's inner struggles. Even if he survives the threats lurking amongst the trees, can he ever forgive himself for abandoning his baby brother?
Kirtley tells a bold tale. For the majority of the book, the story focuses on only two characters- Charlie and Harby- and yet the narrative remains engaging through fast-paced twists and electrifying descriptions of the forest itself (the language used in the storm scene is incredible.) Although certain aspects of the story did come to feel slightly repetitive (there was a lot of running and tripping and falling) these moments were broken up by chapters filled with high tension. The climatic knife scene with the mysterious shadow man and the baby was particularly eye-watering but was in keeping with the dynamic plot.
I really admired the way Sophie Kirtley didn't shy away from the difficult issues of life. Whether in the Stone Age or in modern time, she beautifully showed how every family can endure terrible times which ignite the darkest of fears. Kirtley guides Charlie and the reader gently to the conclusion that these challenges need to be faced with bravery and strength and it is only by helping Harby with his plight that Charlie comes to face his own. It was particularly poignant that Charlie initially couldn't accept the help of his closest friends, but had to find his own way back in (and to) his own time. This highlighted the sense of isolation a person goes through when things are tough.
Fans of Stig of the Dump will find this a delight but I would highly recommend that all middle grade readers give it a go. It is an adventure story with a difference. The setting is memorable in it's beauty yet menacing silence. The tone feels reflective. Compared to other current middle grade adventures on the market, this feels slower and tamer in pace but makes for a deeper impact on the soul.
This is Sophie Kirtley's debut novel and I look forward to seeing what comes next.