Family breakdown as narrated by a ten year old
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece - Annabel Pitcher
Member Name: brokenangel
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece - Annabel Pitcher
Date: 25/07/12, updated on 25/05/13 (85 review reads)
Advantages: An excellent YA offering - sensitive, comic and comprehensible
Disadvantages: Some readers may be irritated by the lack of definite closure
== 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.
Summary: A moving story about loss and its consequences for adults and YA readers alike