My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher
Ten-year-old Jamie Matthews has just moved to the Lake District with his Dad and his teenage sister, Jasmine for a ‘Fresh New Start’. Five years ago his sister’s twin, Rose, was blown up by a terrorist bomb. His parents are wrecked by their grief, Jasmine turns to piercing, pink hair and stops eating. The family falls apart. But Jamie hasn’t cried in all that time. To him Rose is just a distant memory. Jamie is far more interested in his cat, Roger, his birthday Spiderman T-shirt, and in keeping his new friend Sunya a secret from his dad. And in his deep longing and unshakeable belief that his Mum will come back to the family she walked out on months ago. When he sees a TV advert for a talent show, he feels certain that this will change everything and bring them all back together once and for all.
This is one of those books that has been on my radar for a while now; the problem was that a couple of my colleagues didn’t particularly love it, whilst some of my fellow blogging friends, in particular Daniel at Dog Ear Discs, absolutely raved about it! With its recent release in paperback, with a much more endearing cover than the original hardback, I decided I ought to give it a go and find out once and for all who was right – the booksellers or the bloggers? I suppose being that I am a bookseller and a blogger, it seems almost coincidental that my opinion has fallen somewhere between the two…
It’s fair to say that Annabel Pitcher was obviously inspired by the never-ending trauma that families have had to go through since losing loved ones in terrorist attacks, either on 9/11 inNew York, or on 7/7 inLondon. It’s a tricky topic to address in a novel due to the political and religious connotations that come with it. The way Pitcher succeeds through this is using the voice of ten-year-old Jamie to tell his family’s story. Jamie’s sister died tragically in a terrorist attack, one that is entirely fictional and created by Pitcher, I should add. Some of her body is buried, and some of it has been cremated and now contained inside an urn that sits on the mantelpiece in her father’s house. Jamie’s father and mother couldn’t quite agree on what should be done with the bits of her body that were recovered from the attack. It’s hardly something any parent should have to think about, and although Jamie makes light of the situation, the utter sadness of the situation lurks quietly behind his words.
The death of Rose has devastating consequences on this family. Rose’s mother has turned to a support group, perhaps one too many times seeing as she has now run off with a man she met during her sessions. Rose’s father has turned to alcohol. Jamie and Rose’s twin sister, Jasmine can only depend on each other. The absence of their mother is heartbreaking as Jamie struggles to come to terms with the fact that she might just have forgotten his birthday, and that she isn’t just going to show up at the house one day. And with their father drinking heavily on a daily basis, and becoming more bitter with every drop, it is left to the children to hold everything together. For me, these scenes were incredibly difficult to read, as they mirror a big part of my own childhood as my parents divorced. The innocence we have as children causes us to never lose hope; Jamie never considers the fact that he might never see his mother again, even the slight possibility of it happening escapes him. It is only as adults that we see the finality in these things – we learn and accept that we will never see them again. Pitcher dealt with this tremendously well for her debut novel, at times I even felt like she was writing about my own life.
Watching someone you love turn to alcohol is also very soul-destroying. In sadness we often turn to the things that will help us forget or numb the pain. As Jamie’s father comes to lose all sense of the life around him, of even the mundane every day chores, he now focuses solely on the urn on the mantelpiece, holding the remains of his daughter. For me, it’s easy to understand how these things can tear someone apart, so much so that even though he is the adult and he should be taking care of his children, sometimes these roles reverse, and it is the children who must assume responsibility look after the adults. Pitcher portrayed this situation extremely well, focusing on Jasmine as the one keeping their lives on track, and keeping Jamie’s innocence intact.
You know that this sort of book is going to deal with some tricky issues just from the blurb, and Pitcher never shies away from them despite it being a young adult book. Jamie’s father has an explosive hatred for all Muslims since the terrorist attack that killed his daughter. He has moved his family away from London and into the Lake District just to get away from them, so that his children do not mix with any of their kind. However, a spanner is most definitely thrown into the works when Jamie meets Sunya, a Muslim who he has befriended in his class at school. Sunya is possibly Jamie’s only friend and vice versa. Sunya is a breath of fresh air in the novel, she breathes warmth and humour into an otherwise depressing situation. She gives Jamie back his childhood and shows him what a real friendship is like. The problem is, Jamie can’t let his father discover who his new best friend is. Sunya is his little secret.
Now then, here’s where Pitcher could have benefitted from a little bit more research. Sunya didn’t really have much of a Muslim identity, for me. For one, her family has a dog – which most practicing Muslims wouldn’t have because they are seen as ‘ritually unclean’ in their religion. Also, there’s a lot of talk about Sunya not being allowed to show anyone her hair to anyone other than her future husband. But near the end, Sunya shows her hair to Jamie like its some kind of gift. I just found this all a little bit silly, if I’m honest. As much as I loved Sunya as a character, and the different dimensions she brought to the novel, I feel Pitcher could have given her a bit more of an identity and done a bit more research.
I also felt that at times, Jamie’s character became a little bit over-written. His voice, which at first was quirky and funny; slowly started to grate on me. I sometimes felt as though Jamie acted much younger than he is meant to be, and he ended up sounding a little bit stupid at times. When you go through the kind of trauma Jamie went through, you are forced to grow up a little quicker than you perhaps should have, and I never really felt like Jamie ever did. Maybe I have a problem with child narrators, like I did with Room by Emma Donoghue. Yes it’s nice for them to keep their innocence, but do they really need to stay so naïve?
My last gripe about this novel is the way it heads towards Jamie and Jasmine taking part in a televised talent competition to bring their parents together again, with their attention on them for the first time in many months. As soon as Jamie mentioned this competition, I groaned and silently prayed that this would never happen, but alas it did. It was going so well until then. It made the whole novel feel a little bit cheap and unoriginal. I know these televised competitions have become a huge part of our modern culture, but it’s so tedious when I have to read about it in books as well!
However, despite my few gripes, I still thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The issues Pitcher dealt with are important and relevant to our lives today, and it’s incredibly vital that books like this are still being written, so that children today are aware of what is happening in the world around them. It’s a novel that isn’t afraid to address the prejudices and discrimination of Muslims in our culture, and how we shouldn’t judge all Muslims from the actions of a corrupt few. It’s a book that will make you laugh and make you think all at the same time. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Pitcher will come up with next…
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is out now, published by Indigo, an imprint of Orion. Thanks goes to the publisher for sending me a copy for review.
- My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher: review (telegraph.co.uk)
- Children’s fiction prize book club: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (guardian.co.uk)
- My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher – review (guardian.co.uk)
- Galaxy shortlist gives Hollinghurst a second go against Booker rivals (guardian.co.uk)