"When We Get to the Island" by Alex Nye is a fast paced novel that will appeal to both teens and adults alike. It follows the story of two young people, Hani and Mia, who meet by chance and end up embarking on a dangerous journey together. They are both running away. Hani from his captors and to find his sister Reena and Mia from her foster home. Both feel invisible, though for different reasons. Hani is a Syrian refugee, brought to Scotland with his sister by the initially well meaning "Uncle Giorgio". Hani and Reena's parents have given everything they have to buy them safe passage to a promised better life in the UK. And while their journey across Europe is harrowing, the situation they find themselves in, on a farm, stripped of their identities and treated as slaves seems almost worse. And then Reena, Hani's big sister and protector, is taken away. With the smallest scrap of information as to where, Hani plots his escape.
Mia is in care. Her parents are dead, as is the grandmother who cared for her when she was first orphaned and she has no other family. She hates everything about her life. Her foster parents only care about the money looking after her brings in and she is bullied at school. Her only love is of running and one day she decides she is going to run and never stop until she reaches the island where she once lived with her parents, where she remembers being happy. Her life collides with that of Hani in the streets of Falkirk when he is being chased by his captors having given them the slip. He tells her that he has to get to Balfour House at Balnakeil and so their journey begins.
Nye says in her acknowledgments that "When We Get to the Island" was inspired by John Buchan's "The Thirty-Nine Steps" which she read at school. To this reader it is also reminiscent of the Famous Five series of books by Enid Blyton, as whilst there is nothing fanciful about the tale of two young people in Hani and Mia's shoes, there is an innocence about their story that is both refreshing and uplifting. As well as bad people, there are also good people that Hani and Mia meet on their journey and over the pages of this book it is possible to suspend reality in the belief that good will conquer evil.
For a reader who knows the landscape Nye is describing well, there is a comforting accuracy in the pen pictures she draws of the railway journey to the far north of Scotland and, up to a point, the area around Balnakeil and Smoo Cave. The chase scenes are believable and have good pace and there is real sense of immersion in the children's journey and their urgency to outrun their pursuers. We will certainly be handing this to our in-house young reader who, coincidentally, recently travelled to that part of Scotland for the first time. He is going to love this book.