Sunday, August 5, 2012
Jamie's older sister Rose haunts the family from the mantelpiece in this hard-hitting children's novel. She lives there. She's spoken to, she's offered food and she even manages to buy her family gifts. But Rose is dead. In fact, she was killed in a terrorist attack 5 years previously and Jamie can barely remember her - let alone cry for her. In contrast, Jamie's parents' inability to let her go eventually tears the family apart. Mum walks out, Dad drinks to forget and Jamie and Rose's remaining twin Jasmine are left desperately trying to patch their lives back together.
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is an honest and unsentimental portrayal of an imperfect family struggling to come to terms with the death of a child. It's telling that this children's book feels more authentic than the majority of popular adult 'tragic lit' titles (or whatever Waterstones are labelling them as this year). Far from featuring stock, dependable adult characters, in Pitcher's world grief has made children out of the adults and adults of the children.
Jamie is an unselfconscious narrator and he paints a brutally clear picture of the children's neglected state. The faith that he relentlessly places in his mother could distress some adult readers. But the success of this book suggests that children respond well to such a honest representation of a dysfunctional family. And why shouldn't they? Children are on the whole much more honest than adults. And their response to death is usually way more pragmatic than an adult's. In short, Jamie's parents could stand to learn a lot from him.
The book has its sweet moments as Jamie interacts with his sister and his only friend Sunya, (a friendship that Jamie's Dad would definitely NOT approve of). It's clear early on that his chance for happiness rests on these two young pairs of shoulders. I was a little disappointed that the author has made both of the only 2 nurturing/supportive figures in the novel female. I suppose it just felt predictable, especially as the school bully was male, for the parenting void in his live to be filled by two females.
Also the romantic aspect of Jamie and Sunya's relationship didn't really ring true for me. His infatuation seemed to devalue their friendship in the way that it served as a convenient motivation for his continued resistance to his Dad's tyranny. It would have been way cooler if Sunya's personality (which did rock) was the main instigator for Jamie's loyalty rather than an attraction which seemed to border on a fetishness for Sunya's cultural differences. It felt like the crush had been added mainly for the benefit of the adult cute factor and removing it could have opened up the book to more young male readers.
Those issue aside there's a lot to like about this book. I always like books that hand the reins to kids in difficult situations and I really value the honesty surrounding this difficult topic. It's also a pretty funny read too. 3/5 stars.