Holly Theresa Kennet is going to be a climate scientist. At the moment, she’s still only 13 but in recent months she’s hunted for buried treasure in the Orkneys, confronted an exploding dish-washer, saved a seriously sick rabbit, learned a lot about picking locks and made friends with several interesting grown-ups. Before that, life was not only less interesting, it was tough going. She lives with half-brother Jonathan and full-brother Davy (aged 7) in a flat over Ranjit’s chip shop in a part of London famous ‘for being – I dunno – fabulously diverse and cultural and having lots of great food shops or something’. Both of Holly’s parents have died and Jonathan has given up a place at uni to care for Holly and Davy. He works in Cath’s Caff, barely making enough, even with benefits, for them all to scrape by. No treats, no cash for much needed new school shoes. Cheese sandwiches three suppers running says it all. Against all of that, the three are invincible in their care and love for each other.
However, their eccentric, not to say batty, Aunt Irene is loaded. She’s been a brilliant, well-rewarded inventor/engineer, travelling far and wide. Her daughter Jo is friendly enough, but overwhelmed with kids and a business to run. When Irene dies, it turns out she’s left valuable jewellery to Holly and her brothers – the proceeds from selling it would make all the difference. But Irene became almost paranoid in her final weeks and documents, ID numbers and the jewels have all vanished. It seems they may be scattered about the globe in safes that look like silver metal briefcases. On her deathbed, Irene anxiously presses into Holly’s hands a small photograph album. Holly is convinced the album is a clue to the whereabouts of those briefcases.
So begins the treasure hunt in which the family journeys the length of the British Isles, with helping hands from friendly adults such as the geeky types at the London Makers Space, home to ‘about a hundred real, mad-scientist, evil genius type inventors’; they’ll knock up a metal detector in a jiffy or two for the family to use. Their search takes them to the Orkneys and along the way they are joined by Jonathan’s internet girlfriend Kate, finishing her degree in Aberdeen. It’s not long before Kate helps Jonathan to remember there’s more to life than wiping tables at the Caff. Meanwhile Irene’s husband, Evan, emerges as the original Wicked Uncle, scheming to get his grasping hands on the briefcases for himself.
Holly is an avid reader with old-fashioned tastes: Sherlock Holmes (in the original, not the Cumberbatch edition), Agatha Christie, Lord Peter Wimsey, The Chalet School, Narnia, The Family From One End Street and Tolkien balanced only by a liking for Hunger Games super-heroine, Katniss Everdeen. When Holly decides to write a book about her family’s adventures, and call it An Island of Our Own, Jonathan says readers will think it’s going to be ‘Swallows and Amazons for rich people’. He’s wrong about the rich people, but the Walkers and the Blacketts would have loved solving a trail of clues, messing about on islands and boats, mostly free from adults except when a spot of help is needed. So here’s a kind of pre-war adventure which begins in the mean city streets of the present. Even Sally Nicholls seems anxious that literal credibility might be stretched a bit. She allows a thoughtful Orkney crofter to reflect, ‘I can’t quite picture [Irene] as the sort of storybook aunt who wants you to crack a code before she lets you inherit her money.’ Maybe, he says, the photos were a reminder to herself, a consequence of muddled old age. I’m more persuaded by the storybook aunt line myself, but I doubt that many young readers will be troubled by mere implausibility, given the attractions of the characters and the pace of the telling.