Kit Learmonth would rather die than grow up and leave Neverland …When she was twelve, Kit Learmonth watched her parents drown in a storm as their boat sailed over the Tranter Sink Hole. Now seventeen, Kit doesn’t remember the incident, and she doesn’t want to. In fact, her only clear memories from before her parents’ death are of the fantastical stories of pirates and mermaids that she and her dad invented about the small island where she grew up, a place she calls Neverland. Following Kit’s parents’ deaths, her uncle and guardian, Doc, transformed the island into a boarding school for mentally ill teenagers and sent Kit away to school on the mainland. But when Kit tries and fails to end her life, Doc brings her home to the island and places her in the care of his colleague, Dr Hannah Ward. Resisting her treatment, Kit instead pulls her friends deeper into her world of make-believe. It’s only when Kit and her new boyfriend, Rohan, take the fantasy too far and land themselves in very real danger that her faith in Neverland is shaken, and Kit must find a way back to reality.
Almost every book I read is something I’ve picked up on recommendation with little to no idea of what it holds. Sometimes I know a basic premise: a myth retelling, a time travel adventure, a family drama, an exploration of mental health. With Neverland, all I knew was that Margot McGovern was represented by Danielle Binks, a blogger and now agent and editor I’ve been following since I started blogging. She’s someone whose reviews and recommendations I embrace without question. Speaking to Margot for Better Words cemented my desire to read her debut as soon as it was released and it is one of the few books I’ve ever pre-ordered. I knew basically nothing about it and what I thought I knew was way off the mark. Yet it was one of those books which sparks love from the first page.
I mistakenly thought Neverland was some kind of fantasy novel given it was partly inspired by Peter Pan. These elements are certainly key to the story, but in the mind and memories of Kit who named her childhood island home after the place where no one grows up. The book opens with Kit’s suicide attempt, landing her back on the island. This time though, she is there as a patient at her uncle Doc’s mental health facility. He set the centre up after the death of Kit’s parents.
Although Neverland is contemporary, it evokes a strong and nostalgic sense of magic. Kit still views the island through a lens of childhood imagination. Her descriptions of the rocky coves along the beach sprang to life and I could easily imagine a little girl with a storyteller father believing wholly in the tales of mermaids, pirates and smugglers.
The writing was sumputuous in these island scenes, but struck the perfect balance with brevity. Neverland was one of those books I knew I would love from the first pages. It is beautifully crafted, but this never feels overbearing in what is a swift plot. I raced through this so much faster than I expected, especially given how much I was enjoying McGovern’s writing style. Given this is McGovern’s debut, I am waiting with bated breath to see how her writing career develops. I can’t pinpoint the last time I read a YA debut this impressively formed.
Much like its inspiration, Neverland has darkness around the edges like storm clouds rolling in from the distance. The demons of Kit’s past threaten to tumble down with a thunder crack, but she is determined to keep them at bay. Neverland delicately and sensitively explores Kit’s mental health, as well as the health of other island residents. Although the novel is very much about Kit’s journey to recovery (including finally reliving the tragic night her parents died) and uncovering the island secrets, it never feels like a book pushing an agenda. The other patients, Kit’s best friends, are not just a roll call of ‘issues’ to make the book more colourful. In fact, the reason they’re on the island isn’t explicitly revealed until half way through the novel.
Neverland is a beautiful, lyrical novel exploring mental health with sensitivity and compassion. If this is McGovern’s debut, then I cannot wait to see her future work.