Salvage by Keren David (Atom, 16 January 2014)
Complex and with a diverse cast of characters, Salvage is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read about the nature of family.
Cass Montgomery is the adoptive daughter of an MP. An MP who’s got his intern pregnant and is divorcing his wife to be with her. Aidan Jones has grown up being passed from foster home to foster home. Now 19 years old and out of the care system, he has a job and lives with his girlfriend in London. When he stumbles upon Cass’ picture in the newspaper, he knows: she’s his sister, and he needs to see her.
I won a copy of Salvage months ago, but since it was shortlisted for the Bookseller’s YA Book Prize 2015, I finally picked it up. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’m happy to say I liked it quite a lot, and that it’s a very realistic story about people experiencing a difficult time in their lives and the way they relate to each other and reach out to each other.
I talk about reading diversely a lot, but one of the things that I am aware I fail to talk about much is class. I’d say that Salvage is a diverse book in a lot of ways, with characters who aren’t all straight and white and abled, but it’s most intriguing in its exploration of class. Because Cass was taken out of a working class background as a very young child and thus grew up in a firmly upper-middle class family, it’s fascinating to see how different her perspective is compared to Aidan’s. The book alternates between their two POVs, and they have such a startlingly different view of things. Cass’ class privilege is made obvious, and yet the author hasn’t made things completely black and white. Cass suffers emotionally because of the pressure she feels to be a perfect child for her adoptive family. She looks at Aidan and she sees the freedom she doesn’t have because her family expects so much of her. It’s painfully complicated and her inner emotions and conflict all feel very real to me.
I have to say, I loved Cass, and I never really managed to warm to Aidan. Cass was much more relatable, since I share a lot of her life experiences–I went to a posh school, I have a family that really expects me to do well academically, I go to Oxford University, which is where Cass thinks she has to apply to in order to please her parents. She’s inexperienced when it comes to boys, which is totally how I was at her age. So I couldn’t help but feel a great deal of sympathy for her.
Aidan is completely different. I understand that he’s had a very, very difficult time growing up. I know he’s been abused emotionally and sexually, and I know that he’s barely experienced any real love until he met his girlfriend, Holly. But I still find some of his actions so questionable. They’re completely understandable in the light of his background, but I still can’t bring myself to like him much or trust that he’s really changing for the better. He frequently fails to be honest to his girlfriend. He probably slept with some other girl while drunk (he doesn’t remember, and he doesn’t say anything about it or even think about it at all really) and the book just never even mentions that again. There are more problems than that, but I won’t mention them here because spoilers. I know he grows and he learns over the course of the book to be a better person, but sometimes he just does something and I’m like… Really? I’m supposed to forgive you for that and forget it happened?
So. I really enjoyed Cass’ storyline, but Aidan’s a bit less so. Cass’ storyline was admittedly also helped by the existence of Will Hughes, Cass’ love interest and my new book boyfriend. I haven’t swooned this hard over a boy in a contemporary YA book… like, ever. Honestly, when I read about boys in contemporary YA I’m usually just like “what does she see in him anyway?”. This is not the case here. Will charmed me from his first appearance. His fashion sense! His kindness! His sense of humour! How perceptive he is when Cass seems hurt or sad, all the stuff he does to help Ben, Cass’ brother from her adoptive family, who’s affected by something resembling Asperger’s. Will’s just so caring and gentle and funny and sweet and everything about him is gold, and I loved the development of his relationship with Cass.
The ending was, I felt, a bit rushed, and there was one particular loose thread that I really felt ought to have been tied up and was annoyed to see just vanish. But slightly weak endings are a common complaint that I have with most books.
I’m glad this book gave me some insight into the kinds of lives that people like Aidan lead, even though I didn’t like Aidan very much as a character. I still think that this book touches on some really important issues in a very sensitive way. And I’d still think that not liking Aidan is better than not caring about Aidan at all–there are some authors who write bland characters that I can’t bring myself to feel anything about. Aidan rouses some pretty strong emotions in me. I felt like the author really managed to depict all the characters in this book as real people with unique struggles of their own, even the side characters who appear more briefly. That doesn’t happen often in a book.