Review of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

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This debut novel has been creating something of a stir – but it was my husband who ordered it from the library after seeing a poster about it on the way to London…

Ten year old Jamie hasn’t cried since it happened. He knows he should have – Jasmine cried, Mum cried and Dad still cries. Roger didn’t, but then he’s just a cat and didn’t know Rose that well, really.  Everyone kept saying it would get better with time, but that’s just one of those lies that grown-ups tell in awkward situations. Five years on, and it’s worse than ever. Dad drinks, Mum’s run off with Nigel from her Support Group and Jasmine wears black and has pink hair. While Jamie is left with questions he must answer for himself.

mysisterlivesAs for Rose, Jasmine’s twin – bits of her are in an urn on the mantelpiece and the book opens with Jamie explaining exactly which bits of her ended up in the urn and why. This is a brave, thought-provoking read about the on-going consequences of a child’s unexpected death. However, Pitcher has managed to depict the family’s painful dysfunction with an assuredness that is impressive in a first novel. It is Jamie’s voice that saves this book from descending into a bleak miasma of misery, as in his viewpoint Pitcher leavens this book with a number of funny scenes. Like the majority of children in really tough situations, Jamie doesn’t waste a lot of time on self pity. He’s too engrossed in trying to adjust to life in a new school in the Lake District and making friends with Sunya, a Muslim. In the normal course of things, this wouldn’t be a problem, but Rose died in a terrorist incident similar to 7/07, so Dad hates Muslims.

So, on top of giving us a ringside seat on a family’s suffering over the loss of a child, Pitcher also adds the tricky issue of hardening attitudes towards an innocent community due to the actions of a handful of murdering fanatics.

I think she’s managed to succeed in nailing Jamie’s voice – no mean feat, given the storyline and once I got into the book, I couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it. And when I surfaced, I was feeling more than a bit wrung out…

Any niggles? Hm… as it happens, yes. As an ex-primary school teacher, I had no problem with Pitcher’s unsympathetic treatment of Jamie’s class teacher or headmaster. But, while I would be quite prepared to believe that Jamie’s records or lack of them might have been overlooked in an hard-pressed inner city school, where anything between 30% to 50% of the pupils may move in a year – in a country school where he is clearly the ‘new boy’ and treated as an outsider, the fact that he wears the same t-shirt for a whole term and is clearly neglected wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. These days, teachers are legally bound to report any concerns over a child’s welfare to a superior and/or visiting social worker and I find it difficult to believe that some details of the family’s circumstances wouldn’t have become known to the school in that timeframe.

However, given Pitcher’s achievement in managing a very difficult subject with such adroitness, I’m quite prepared to cut her some slack over this issue. The novel has been marketed as a children’s book, but it is one of those special stories suitable for anyone aged ten and over – and if you don’t believe me, get hold of a copy and give it a go. You’ll thank me if you do…

9/10

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