|Even Spider-man needs a bit of help sometimes.|
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher has a strange balance between quite accidental black humour and tragedy. The storyteller is 10 year old Jamie Matthews, who has moved to the Lake District with his father, his sister Jasmine and his cat Roger. Five years ago, Jasmine’s twin sister Rose, was killed in an explosion, orchestrated by terrorists. As such, the father has never quite come to terms with the loss of Rose and is split from their mother. Both grieving in their own ways, whilst Jamie struggles to fit in surrounded by bullies, unsympathetic teachers and neglect from his father. Luckily, his sister Jasmine stands by him, as does a Muslim girl, Sunya, causing the two to strike up a friendship.
Jamie – the narrator, 10 years old, avid spider-man fan, a curious and slightly bewildered child who seems to lack the attention he needs from the deadbeat dad and the absent mum.
Jasmine – the hero of the story – looks after Jamie, pretty much runs the household due to the dad’s drinking and grief. Dyes her hair bright pink so as to be distinguished from her dead sister.
Dad – alcoholic, but never violent to his kids – just consumed by sorrow. Tries, but is essentially a nervous wreck. Hates Muslims, blaming all of them for the death of his daughter Rose.
Mum – worse than dad; absent for a good part of the story, not a sympathetic character or one to warm to really.
Sunya – a sweet and slightly mischievous Muslim girl who becomes friends with Jamie. One of the most interesting characters, thick-skinned and reliable; cares a lot for Jamie and shares similar characteristics of Jasmine.
For a a book with not the cheeriest of subject matters, (a broken family reeling from the events of a bombing that left one of their number dead) I actually found My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece a sweet, absorbing and often, an unintentionally funny read.I think it’s mainly due to the narrator being a 10 year old boy. If it had been from the point of view of the mother or the father than I imagine I would have put the book down after 10 pages and not gone back to it.
The jacket sleeve states that “this is his (Jamie’s) story, an unflinchingly real yet heart-warming account of a young boy’s struggle to make sense of the loss that tore his family apart.” – Now, alarm bells might ring, yes it does sound like one of those true story/grief books that I wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot barge pole, but there’s something quite naïve and warm about Pitcher’s style and the fact it’s all detailed from this viewpoint of confused adolescence.
I should state, I got more laughs out of this book than I got out of the ‘uproariously funny’ Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian. Why? Because the writing was about a million times better, the humour – quite subtle and clever in the style of Outnumbered, e.g.
Mrs Farmer: “god is watching us all the time… even when we think we are alone, he can see what we are doing.”
Jamie (inner monologue): I thought about being on the toilet and hoped this wasn’t true.
Jamie (inner monologue): whilst on a trip to the beach in an attempt to scatter Rose’s ashes – We were squashed in the back. Rose had the front seat. Dad even put a seatbelt around the urn but forgot to tell me to do mine.
During the creation of a nativity scene during an Ofsted inspection, baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary all have unexpected additions to their clay selves. One of the last lines in the chapter also ends with “thank you for giving baby Jesus a dickhead.”
I felt a lot of sympathy for Jamie. My impression in the story is that he never really knew his sister Rose as well as Jas and so to have her not in his life anymore, it didn’t affect him as much as it did the other members of the family. I feel he was very hard done by; constantly getting the shitty end of the stick on everything – whether this is a combination of his oddball quirks, the divide between his parents who seem so consumed in their own private grief that they fail to pay attention to others around them, or due to jerks like Daniel at school. I think if Jas hadn’t been there, the story would have been a lot darker – she was the ray of light for Jamie. She was the one he could turn to, she basically acted as more of mother to him than their actual mum, who’s presence in the book angered me when she finally appeared. Jas is the hero of the book; it’s her that cares for and looks after Jamie – the Christmas presents, the sacrifices and brave decisions she makes for him. Sunya fits a similar trope – she sees Jamie as the troubled, tortured outsider and tries to bond with him. Due to Jamie’s dad’s views on Muslims, Jamie feels like a traitor to his dead sister and his dad and at times, his behaviour towards Sunya is bizarre, rude and quite coarse. Her persistent and dogged attitude though, means she stands by him.
I feel in some ways, this books isn’t just about seeing grief from another view point – it’s also about friendship and the strains that friendship goes through in it’s initial creation and the things that do hold two people together and the obstacles they have to overcome in order for that friendship to work.
I’m trying not to throw too many spoilers in; basically, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is something I seriously recommend. The subject matter is handled expertly, with a thoughtful, often juvenile attitude shining through, lightening the mood of a book that some might expect to be darker. Is their a happy ending? There’s an ending, that’s all I’m going to say. However, Pitcher seems to have gone to the same school of making the character(s) suffer as Patrick Ness, but only attended the first few classes, as opposed to Ness and his degree in “ramping the pain to 11.” The bleaker moments, are outweighed by fitting conclusions and several significant turning points that bring certain characters (such as the dad) out of a one-dimensional shell and prove that they do have some spark and life in them. I think there is a lot of love in this book awaiting to be opened but is only freed through closure and the growing of everyone involved.
It would be interesting to see what a 10 year old thinks of this book.