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When running reading groups for work, I have found that following the Berkshire Book Award is not always as fun as following the Carnegie Medal. The books are chosen by the teenagers themselves, which means names like Jacqueline Wilson and Darren Shan tend to be prominent and popularity often seems to win over originality. All of which meant that I was quite pleased to spot 'My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece' on the shortlist as it is an offering from a new author and looked like it had the potential to be quite interesting. (Alright, I was smitten by the title.)
== The idea ==
Ten year old Jamie Matthews has moved to the Lake District with his dad and older sister, Jas, for a fresh start. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear to Jamie that this fresh start is rather similar to their old life: his dead sister's ashes dominate the mantelpiece and empty bottles clink dismally in the bin. Jamie doesn't even remember Rose, but she's still tearing his family apart. Then a TV advertisement catches his eye. Could this be the way to fix everything?
== The result ==
The plotline is so familiar one could almost tick off the elements: a broken family, a child who is bullied at school, useless teachers, a 'new start' that isn't, an idea that will fix things - except it won't. The difference between this and countless other YA offerings is the sheer vigour in Jamie's voice.
Jamie is a delightful narrator. His energy and naivety mean that however sinister the ideas he is exposed to, his reactions prompted a smile from me. His blunt statement that 'Muslims blew up my sister' is startling but understandable. (The same statement voiced by his father is chilling.) Jamie's tentative friendship with young Sunya develops in fits and starts as he tries to reconcile his father's blind hatred with the truth that's sat next to him, offering him a blu-tac ring.
As the story develops Jamie necessarily matures and begins to consider a way forward that recognises what he has as well as what he has lost. In this way, he becomes a positive role model for teen readers.
== My thoughts ==
Writing from the perspective of a ten year old is a challenge and some of Jamie's ideas and actions could easily seem ridiculous in a child who is approaching secondary school age. Suspending belief is probably easier for me as I do not have children, but I found Jamie generally convincing as a narrator; he pursued his interests and was creative in trying to attain his desires. Pitcher hints towards darker motives in other characters while only denting Jamie's innocence. His desire to do the right thing, and to know what the right thing was, meant he was likeable throughout. The first person narration helps to pull you into his world view.
I found his attitude towards his dead sister Rose was one of the most refreshing elements of the book. Jamie doesn't remember her at all and is very matter of fact about her death and dismemberment: he knows exactly which pieces of her were burned and which were buried. It is clear that Jamie is not callous, merely young, and it is only his later reaction to a sad event which helps him to understand why the rest of his family have found it so hard to say goodbye to his dead sister. I thought that the sad event seemed a little forced as it came out of nowhere and provided a rather obvious device to move Jamie's understanding of grief forward. That said, it is not an unrealistic development at all and does not detract from an otherwise convincing plotline.
I liked the fact that the events of the book were realistic. It is quite clear from the first chapter that Jamie's hopes are likely to go unrewarded and I thought the ending was suitably true-to-life without being too dark. I don't cry when reading books or watching films but I can see that many readers might be brought to tears by Jamie's situation, not even because it's so unusual, but just because the emotions are clearly so raw for all the family members.
Jamie's relationship with his surviving sister is one of the most touching elements of the book. Abandoned by her heartbroken mother to cope with her younger sibling, drunken dad and memories of her twin, Jas does a mostly-great job, but Pitcher includes little details that emphasise how much she is struggling. Sometimes aware of these and sometimes not, Jamie often inadvertently brings her tears of laughter and sadness. I liked the way they looked out for each other and yet sometimes annoyed each other. I didn't feel that the relationship ever became too 'sweet' to be convincing.
There are a range of other characters, all of whom I found to be convincing and all of whom added to the story in some way.
The background (such as how Rose died) is alluded to when necessary and there is a very short 'story' from Jas' perspective at the end of the book which neatly adds a different viewpoint and enriches what has gone before. I liked that most of the action took place in the present as it made the story easier to read and I felt more involved in the characters' lives.
== Conclusions ==
'My sister lives on the Mantelpiece' is tender without being overly sentimental and explores big themes (grief, loss, prejudice) in a way that is comprehensible for young adult readers. The main character is sensitive but sufficiently 'boy-friendly' (he's into football and pulling pranks) to interest boys and girls. The storyline is fairly typical for YA fiction but is well written and usually convincing. As an adult reader, I still enjoyed this, especially as the sad story is often imbued with a wonderfully comic undertone due to the narrator's innocent perspective. I think it is well worth the £6.99 cover price.
Prefer to hear it aloud? The audio version is read by David Tennant for £14.99.
Ten Year old Jamie has just moved to the Lake District with his Dad and sister, hopeful for a fresh start. It's been Five years since his other sister, Rose was killed by a terrorist bomb in London and tore their family apart. His Dad has turned to alcohol, his mother walked out to be with the man from the support center a few weeks ago and his sister Jas, Rose's twin, isn't eating and has started piercing her body and dying her hair pink. But Jamie can't really remember Rose, whose urn has stood on the mantelpiece for the last few years, he just wants his Mum to come home and to not have to keep his new friend, Sunya, a secret from his Dad. Then when he see's an advert for a TV talent show he's sure this is what will bring them together again at last.
Wow. My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece is one of the most powerful books I've read in a long time. Right from the most brutally honest opening chapter, which works only because of the author's ability to capture her young narrator's voice so perfectly, I was sucked in and throughout the next 240 pages felt every emotion possible.
Told from the perspective of ten-year-old Jamie, the beauty of this book comes from his simplistic and naïve view of the world. Jamie's sister, Rose, was killed by a terrorist bomb in London five years previously and his family has all but fallen apart in the aftermath. His mother has moved out and his father's become dependant on alcohol to cope with his grief. His elder sister Jas, Rose's twin sister, is doing her best to keep home life together but she's only fifteen and has problems of her own. So when their father announces they are moving from London to the Lake District everyone is hopeful of a fresh start. But Jamie soon realises that things aren't going to be much different in the new town as the family's grief follows them.
I had an overwhelming feeling of wanting to grab hold of Jamie and hug him tightly throughout. The neglect both emotionally and physically from parents, so consumed with grief it's eating them up, broke my heart. It also made me angry, yes they'd lost one child but what about the one's who were living? Yet Jamie's naïve and childlike understanding, desperate need to protect and continued belief in his parents stops you in your tracks and makes you think. And that's Jamie all through the book. He sees things without the complexities grown-ups do. His ponderings may be simplistic, but they are enough to shame an adult.
While the book is told entirely from Jamie's point of view, we also get to know Jas, the sister who has lived in her dead twin's shadow all these years, quite well. I'm not sure I've ever felt pride in a character in a book before, but that's what I felt for Jas. The relationship between her and Jamie is touchingly beautiful and tender, with Jas taking on an almost maternal role. Then there's Sunya, the only child at school who talks to Jamie, who without saying anything seems to understand him, who also brings out the more mischievous and playful side to him. I loved her. Jamie's dilemma between loyalty to his new friend and fear of his father's racism is again heartbreaking and thought provoking.
My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece is an acutely raw and honest account of a family torn apart by grief. Pitcher doesn't shy away from the truth, nor sugarcoat it in anyway. Issues such as terrorism, racism, bullying and alcoholism make it a shocking, brave and extremely current novel and intensely thought provoking. It's also at times very funny and between the tears, shock, heartache and anger I also laughed, smiled and felt extremely hopeful. This is a book aimed at children, and despite the difficult themes it remains suitable for readers aged over 11-12 years. In fact I think this is a book that children should read, along with their parents or teachers and then discussed. There's a lot to take from it for any age group. I think this book is also going to have a huge crossover appeal in much the same way The Book Thief or The Curious Incident Of the Dog In The Night-time did and will also be very much appreciated by adults.
Annabel Pitcher's debut novel is one of those absolutely perfect books, one which is not only very, very good but also grabs hold of you then remains with you long after you've turned the last page. One of the most beautifully written and touching books I've read, I can not recommend it highly enough and struggle to in anyway do it justice with my review. This is a book and an author to watch out for.
Published in the UK by Orion Children's Books March 2011
Thanks to the publisher for providing an advance readers copy for review.
There's a book trailer available for My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece and anyone interest should check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey5zyh68sgs as it gives a very good feel for the book.