Between Sea and Sky by Nicola Penfold

Between Sea and Sky
Cover art by Kate Forrester

A little over a year ago, I purchased Where the World Turns Wild – Nicola Penfold’s debut book, after what was one of the earliest reading recommendations I received on Twitter. That storyline really struck a chord with me – as it did with many people – reading it as I did early on in the Covid pandemic, with its powerful description of a world permanently, and dreadfully, altered by the effects of a disease which had spread through the population.

Having absolutely loved that title, I was desperate to see what Nicola would come up with next so when the title of this – her second book – was announced, I immediately added it to my TBB list – noting carefully its July publication date and telling myself I would need to be patient. That, however, was before it appeared on Net Galley at the beginning of this week and, reasoning that it was the start of the Easter holiday, convinced myself that requesting it wouldn’t really be increasing my ever- growing TBR pile as I would have lots of time in which to read.

Lots of time was not needed though, as less than 24 hours after picking it up, I had finished it – and, in common with Where the World Turns Wild, it has left me stunned, with its strong messages on the importance of safeguarding the environment, trust and the power of familial love.

The story is told through the dual narration of Nat and Pearl – two strangers whose young lives have both been shaped by the constraints put upon them following the Hunger Years. Nat and his friends amuse themselves planting and retrieving flags in forbidden territories on land – avoiding capture by the authorities which would lead to the unfair punishment of their parents – while Pearl and sister Clover alternate between tending the family’s farm out at sea and mudlarking.

It is while trying to plant a flag that Nat witnesses two workers from the Uplands searching for something and after they leave, he rushes to investigate – showing what he finds to his friends, but hiding it at home from his scientist mother, Sora. Shortly afterwards Nat and Sora are sent to stay on the farm, so that she can study the way it works. Not knowing what else to do, Nat brings what he has found with him and – needing to find somewhere away from his mother’s watchful eye to keep it – has to decide whether or not it is a secret that he can trust the sisters with.

While Clover is delighted to have a friend at long last, after years of only having Pearl and her father’s company, and immediately takes to Nat, Pearl takes her fear and loathing of the land out on him and does her best to make him and Sora feel unwelcome. After an accident leaves the girls’ father in need of medical care while he is showing Sora around, she takes him to the onshore hospital, leaving the children to take care of themselves. As the three of them are drawn further and further into Nat’s secret, will they be able to keep it hidden from those who would take more than a passing interest in it, or will it lead not only them but their parents into terrible danger?

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but it always feels very unfair to me to compare an author’s books against one another, particularly when they are not related in some way, but with this book again being set in a dystopian society, I think it will be inevitable. That said, the two books are set in alternate worlds which are very different from one another and each has its own unique feel so that were it not for the author’s name and similar-style artwork on the front covers, you would not necessarily link the two.

Here, there is a subtle – but most definitely sinister – undercurrent running through the story. This relates to those who have created and are administering the laws which seem so very bizarre and unjust to us, the readers – particularly in the way that children are treated. While younger readers might not give this treatment a second thought, as an adult – and especially as a parent – I found a few parts of the story quite unsettling. With so many of our freedoms having been denied us over the past year, albeit for the common good, it is all too easy to imagine ourselves living in Nat or Pearl’s restricted shoes.

The two protagonists could not have had more different starts to life. Nat has a circle of friends with whom he attends school, in stark contrast to Pearl whose father has long since abandoned trying to home-educate her. While Nat and his friends do break some of the rules they live by, Pearl is almost wild in the way that she swims and dives off the family’s farm together with Clover. When Nat comes to stay, he could be visiting another planet as far as he is concerned and each of them has to change their way of seeing the world to accommodate the other. Through their sharing of the secret and mutual fondness for Clover, eventually each starts to bend a little towards the other until events come to a head and they are forced to decide whether to collaborate or to turn their backs on one another.

This is such a thought-provoking read. For most of us, the Covid pandemic has been our main focus over the past 12 months and – certainly in school – our care of the environment has sadly taken a backseat. With the rubbish that as a society we have generated in the form of lateral flow tests, masks and other PPE – for example – and some individuals seeing the temporary closure of recycling plants as an excuse for fly-tipping, at least here, I cannot feel that without action we are heading towards some sort of future as depicted here.

Fortunately, our young people are generally quite clued up on environmental issues and with the lockdown which has just passed hopefully being the last, I am confident that many of those who read this will take onboard its messages and do something to help to avert this crisis. As with Where the World Turns Wild, I would say that this book will appeal enormously to those in upper KS2/KS3 who are at the perfect age to nag their adults to be kinder to our planet and who in a few years will be able to put into practice all that we are hopefully teaching them in school and that they will learn here.

Huge thanks must go to both Net Galley and Little Tiger for my advance copy, read ahead of publication on July 8th. A perfect 5 out of 5 stars.

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