My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher
Pub Date: August 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown
Level: Teen/Ages 10-up
Published in the UK last year, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is a devastating debut by British writer, Annabel Pitcher. Little, Brown is publishing it this August, in the United States (with a brand-new cover). 10-year old Jamie Matthews’ life is in flux–his mum has walked out on him, older sister, Jas, and their father, unable to cope with the cloud of sadness that’s hung over the family since Jamie’s sister (and Jas’ twin), Rose was killed in a terrorist bombing in London five years ago. After what would’ve been Rose’s fifteenth birthday, Jamie’s dad decides that he cannot reside in London anymore, and he moves everyone to the English countryside for a “fresh new start.” In truth, Jamie’s father wants to escape the city for life in a place without Muslims. “‘None of that foreign stuff in the Lake district’ he said. ‘Just real British people minding their own business.'” (pg. 26) In addition to his newfound (and frankly, misplaced) sense of patriotism, Dad has a drinking problem and spends most of the novel hungover, sad, and/or angry. He clings to the memories of his dead daughter, holding on to her ashes (which are kept in an urn on the titular mantelpiece).
Jamie misses his mother, and desperately awaits her reunion with the family. In fact, when he receives a Spiderman t-shirt as a birthday gift from her, he feels it’s his only remaining connection to Mum and refuses to take it off. Arriving at his new school, hoping to make a clean start of things, Jamie is stunned to see a Muslim girl in his class (identifiable by her hijab), and feels uncomfortable when he’s assigned to sit next to her. The other kids in the class turn out to be bullies, but Sunya welcomes Jamie, and becomes somewhat of a kindred spirit. They bond over their love of comic superheroes, as well as devising ways to get back at the school bullies (Sunya’s inventiveness will have you laughing out loud, even when it’s oh-so- wrong!). And that’s the crux of the novel – Jamie is conflicted about his friendship with a Muslim girl, because of his sister’s death at the hands of Islamic extremists. He struggles to mourn the death of a sister he barely knew and is scared of betraying his father.
Pitcher does a fine job of drawing readers into Jamie’s story, as well as eliciting sympathy for all characters (including the bigoted dad, and that’s no easy feat). However, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece doesn’t go into incredible detail about cultural differences. I mean, yes, we understand that Sunya wears a hijab, she feels like an outsider at her Christian school, and also endures relentless teasing from classmates who taunt her with nasty names like Curry Germs. But, since the novel is narrated from Jamie’s perspective, readers aren’t completely clued into what’s really going on in Sunya’s head.
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece isn’t about what makes us different, but rather, what brings people together. For me, one of the most powerful moments in the book comes about when Jamie visits Sunya’s house and realizes that every bad thing he’s ever assumed about Muslims is completely false. When the inevitable confrontation occurs between between Jamie’s dad and Sunya and her mother, it’s a tense and emotionally wrought meeting. I know I had to put the book down for a moment.
As much as I enjoyed this book – Sunya and Jamie’s friendship is touching, and I soaked up every word focusing just on those two – I was not a fan of Jamie’s mother’s storyline. Mum is beyond horrendous – she walks out on the kids, and never contacts them. You later find out that while Jamie and Jas have been dealing with a drunk, emotionally neglectful father, Mum has been gallivanting around the world with her new boyfriend. And, there’s a story behind the Spiderman tee that infuriated me beyond words.
What really worked for me was Jamie’s voice (I’ve read reviews elsewhere, where folks were disappointed in how “young” the voice sounded – I disagree) which felt authentic in its confusion, sadness, and moments of elation. Jas is also well characterized, and to me, it felt like she was the glue keeping the family together.When a wrenching loss finally brings Jamie and his father closer to understanding one another…well, you’ll definitely want to have some tissues on hand.
Loved this book, and recommend that everyone pick it up, especially given its timeliness. Yes, it’s a downer, but I think it’s worth it.
ARC for review kindly provided by Little, Brown at ALA Midwinter ’12.