For quite a while now, I've not read much fiction, either for adults or for children, which has really 'blown my socks off.' (For the attribution of this very useful phrase, please see this post about an enthusiastic guide at the Lascaux Caves.)
But happily, that's recently changed - I've read several very good novels indeed. I've just finished this one, and it's blown my socks right to the other side of Cheddar Reservoir. It's called Girl. Boy. Sea., and it's about exactly what it says in the title: a girl and a boy adrift in a boat on a wide, wide sea.
Bill is crewing a boat with half a dozen other fourteen to sixteen year-olds - they're getting in shape for the Youth Sail Challenge. They are twelve nautical miles north of the Canaries when they get warning of a nasty squall. The boat is badly damaged; everyone else manages to get into the life raft, but after a series of mishaps, Bill finds himself adrift alone in a small boat, the tender.
More storms ensue, but gradually subside. Bill has managed to grab some supplies from the boat before it sank, so he has some food and water - enough for a few days. Then he comes across another castaway, a girl clinging to a barrel. She is a Berber, and her name is Aya.
They manage to communicate, in a mixture of French and English. She will say very little about where she is from, what her story is. At the beginning, Bill realises that now he will have to share his meagre supplies - but it is such a relief to have company that he soon forgets about this, and they become close. They drift for days - puzzlingly, there is no sign of anyone searching for Bill, although he is sure that his parents will be determined to find him. They drift on, under a hot sun. Bill works out a way to make a small supply of water through evaporation (he is a very resourceful boy) - and they manage to catch some sea creatures which they eat, raw, because they have to if they want to live.
Eventually Aya begins to tell Bill stories, apparently from the Arabian Nights. Bill is enthralled, just as the Sultan was in the stories, and the stories are entrancing.
And then, when they are almost at the end of what they can cope with, they spot an island. It's tiny, but it has water and coconut trees. Unfortunately, it also has another inhabitant - one who Aya is not at all pleased to see.
The adventure continues: it would spoil it to explain how. Suffice it to say that the story opens out: it comes to be about some of the harshest realities for people living on our planet. The island (which, we learn later, appears on no chart) may seem like a paradise island compared to the hell of drifting without food or water on an unforgiving ocean, but in truth, it provides no escape from the hell which humans create for each other.
Yet, as Aya explains when she tells the first of her stories, about Pandora's box, there is always hope. And there is love and kindness, in the relationship between Aya and Bill, and as evinced by some of the adult characters who help them. It's a beautiful book. The writing is spare, with short sentences that move the story crisply on: yet it's also, when it needs to be, lyrical. For example, this:
There was metal sky above us now, and light ahead. It was a race to the light, but we were losing. The storm drew over us like a cloak.
I suppose you would say that this is a book for teenagers. But really, it's for anyone who appreciates excellent writing: if adults don't read books like this, they are missing out. It deals with big themes, but also, viscerally, with the reality of what it would actually be like to be adrift on the ocean. It's elegant, in its lack of any extraneous verbiage. I'm chancing it here, because it's a long time since I read any Hemingway, but perhaps there's a hint of The Old Man And The Sea about it. And perhaps, too, a hint of The Lord of the Flies, though it's ultimately much more uplifting than that.
And just a word about the cover - I can't find a credit as to who did it, but I think it's completely stunning.