My Sunday Best today is perhaps more of a teen than an 8-12 title – but I can easily imagine it setting light to the imagination of an able MG reader, just as it compelled me last week to devour it in a single sitting. The latest in a line of brilliant books by this year’s Carnegie winner Tanya Landman, Hell and High Water is the gripping tale of Caleb Chappell, a biracial boy whose high-born English father now makes his living as the master of a Punch and Judy show. When Joseph Chappell is falsely accused of theft and transported, however, Caleb must make his own way in a world instinctively hostile to those of his colour. Seeking out his last remaining relatives in the tiny coastal village of Fishpool, Caleb swears to clear his father’s name, no matter what it takes. But to do so will bring him face to face with corruption, violence and ceaseless, demeaning prejudice. Does Caleb have the strength to survive, and to succeed in his quest?
Landman’s characteristic combination of fast-paced plot with clear-sighted foregrounding of those usually forgotten by history is very much in evidence here, drawing the reader inexorably into the book from its first pages. She evokes what it might feel like to be brown in eighteenth-century England with a delicately stinging, totally believable touch; Caleb is constantly treated as an exotic, reaping familiar comments on the texture of his hair from a flower-seller who sends him on his way ‘with a bruising pinch on the arse’. When travelling alone, he is hyperaware that he may be seen as ambulant goods, one notch above livestock, by the first man to lay claim to him as a runaway slave. Caleb's vulnerability, as a visible, perpetual outsider, leads him to create a defensive carapace - and he's instantly at daggers drawn with Letty, the stepdaughter of the aunt with whom he takes refuge, as a result. (Tough, gorgeous Letty is another superb character; the 'flame-haired, feisty heroine' of fantasy cliche reinvigorated and reborn in Landman's writing.)
Belting plot, perfect period detail and nuanced characterisation aren't the book's only strengths. The treatment of grief - for lost fathers, lost loves, ideals and dreams - throughout the book will bring a lump to the throat of anyone who has ever suffered such a loss. Punches are felt, not pulled; violence leaves its mark, inside and out. But there is hope, bright colour and subversion here, even in drab, monochrome, fear-governed Fishpool; in the craftsmanship of Joseph Chappell's puppets, in the rude delights of their show, and in the love that grows irrepressibly in the unlikeliest quarters, green shoots to crack grey stones. Simultaneously salt and sweet, bitterly cold and glowing with warmth, Hell and High Water is an unforgettable novel from a writer at the pinnacle of her powers.