Saturday, September 29, 2012

Book review: "My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece" by Annabel Pitcher

Title: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece
Author: Annabel Pitcher
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company, 2011

Though his sister Rose died five years earlier in a terrorist bombing, Jamie's family can't seem to get past it. His mother has abandoned him, his older sister Jas, also Rose's twin, and their father for another man; his father has descended into alcoholism, drinking heavily in the morning and passing out for most of the day. The only person he has is Jas, despite his hopes that his mother will come back to them some day soon. As he begins school in a new place after they move to the Lake District, Jamie soon meets Sunya, the only Muslim in his class and the only person who seems to want to be his friend. His father hates Muslims because they killed Rose, but Sunya throws Jamie off balance with her kindness, when she sticks up for him at school, and with her attempts at friendship. Though this all confuses him, he tries his best to figure out the best way to act, how to get through each day, and how he can get his family to be a family again.

This is quite a heavy book. We start with the specter of a dead, and therefore perfect, sister who is basically worshipped by a grieving father, leaving his other two children ultimately invisible. It's really a story about a broken family, bad parenting, and the effects they have. Jamie and Jas must learn to live on their own and take care of themselves, as their dad cannot seem to function and certainly can't take care of his family in the constantly drunk state he lives in. For most of the book Jamie stays in the same Spider-Man T-shirt, and I could not believe no one made him change or at least take a shower. And poor Jas must live with being the remaining twin, unable to make a change in her appearance without getting hell for it from her parents who feel the need to cling to whatever part of Rose they can.

There is so much to this novel. Racism, eating disorders, bullying, alcoholism, abandonment, grief, loss. Yet all of it comes from Jamie, a 10-year-old boy who doesn't even remember the sister that is gone. He doesn't grieve for Rose, but rather for the mother he has lost and the father who can't make himself get out of bed in the morning as a result. Jamie can't even feel comfortable being friends with Sunya for a long time because of the incredible hatred his father feels toward every Muslim no matter who they truly are inside.

The characters are all really well developed. I loved Sunya, who is incredibly strong for going up against every kid in their Catholic school with a spark of mischief in her eye and a way at getting back at people for their misdeeds. Jamie, our narrator, is complex and has complex emotions about what has happened to his family, showing himself to be a victim of terrible circumstance and the grief of others. Jas is a wonderful sister, though not perfect. She takes care of Jamie as best as a 15-year-old can, but she still wants her own life and not one that she must share with a dead girl. Even Jamie's father, deadbeat that he is, has depth.

One thing I am unsure of is how middle grade readers will respond to this. Some will race through the pages once Jamie's forbidden friendship with Sunya begins, as I did, but I'm sure some will find it too heavy to stick with for long. Maybe I'm selling the intended audience short on this, but I guess I just feel like this wouldn't have been something I would have picked up when I was 12.

Has anyone else read this? What were your thoughts? How do you think middle grade readers will respond?

Disclosure: I got this book from the library.

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