10-year-old wrestles with terrorism’s reverberations

10/21/2012
BY JIM HIGGINS
MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL
My Sisters Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (Little Brown 224 pages, $18).
My Sisters Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (Little Brown 224 pages, $18).

If a novel about a fam­ily wounded by ter­ror­ism can be called charm­ing, An­n­abel Pitcher’s My Sis­ter Lives on the Man­tel­piece is that novel. It de­lights and up­lifts while still tak­ing its char­ac­ters’ trau­mas se­ri­ously, and in this hor­ri­ble day of po­lit­i­cal blather never de­volves into talk­ing points.

While for­mally tar­geted at a young-adult read­er­ship 12 and older, it could and should be read by many adults, too, for it com­pro­mises noth­ing in its sto­ry­tell­ing.

Its 10-year-old nar­ra­tor, Jamie Mat­thews, may not un­der­stand ev­ery­thing he sees, and may de­lude him­self oc­ca­sion­ally, but he tells it like it is in an un­flinch­ing and grip­ping man­ner.

Jamie was only 5 when a ter­ror­ist bomb killed one of his older twin sis­ters, Rose, who was 10.

 The ex­plo­sion ripped apart his fam­ily, too. His mother has gone off with a man from the post-bomb­ing fam­ily sup­port group. His father de­scended into al­co­hol­ism and has be­come so con­sumed by his ha­tred of Muslims that he has moved Jamie and the sur­viv­ing twin, Jas­mine, from Lon­don to the Lake Dis­trict, to be away from them all.

So guess who Jamie sits next to in his first day at the dis­mal church-run school he now at­tends? Sunya, a friendly Muslim girl, com­plete with hi­jab.

The ti­tle re­fers to the urn con­tain­ing some of Rose’s cre­mated re­mains. Despite many prom­ises to do so, Jamie’s father can’t bring him­self to scat­ter them. In­stead, he talks to the urn, leaves a piece of cake next to it on birth­days, and uses it, fig­u­ra­tively, to brow­beat his two sur­viv­ing chil­dren when they get out of line.

While Jamie’s sis­ter died spec­tac­u­larly, his di­lemma surely echoes that of many younger chil­dren who’ve had an older sib­ling die. He barely re­mem­bers Rose and is per­plexed by fam­ily pres­sure, es­pe­cially from his father, to treat her like a saint. (Dad has la­beled boxes with Rose’s stuff in them “Sa­cred.”) The Rose he does re­mem­ber is a dif­fer­ent girl:

“In fact she was quite bad and ac­cord­ing to Jas she was naughty at school, but no one seemed to re­mem­ber that now that she is all dead and per­fect.”

“At my old school,” Jamie re­ports, “ev­ery­one called me ‘Girly’ ‘cos I like art, ‘Nerd’ ’cos I’m clever, and ‘Weirdo” ‘cos I find it hard to speak to peo­ple I don’t know.” But one day a year, ev­ery­one wanted to be his friend: the very pub­lic an­ni­ver­sary of Rose’s death. He wel­comes a new school where no one will know about Rose, but the trauma of her death lin­gers.

 He can’t truth­fully write the cheer­ful fam­ily and hol­i­day es­says that the teacher ex­pects, es­pe­cially when a hol­i­day con­sists of dad drink­ing and snor­ing, and mom far away not re­spond­ing to his let­ters.

Three re­la­tion­ships sus­tain him in this world: the un­con­di­tional love of Roger, his cat; the bonds and se­crets he shares with Jas, his sis­ter, and the grow­ing friend­ship with Sunya, rocky and trou­bled as it may be. Both Jas, who has dyed her hair pink and eats as lit­tle as pos­si­ble, and Jamie are keep­ing se­crets from their father. She has ac­quired a green-haired boy­friend; he has Sunya.

Jamie has in­ter­nal­ized Dad’s grief-stricken rage: “Muslims killed your sis­ter. Muslims are ter­ror­ists.” He strug­gles with rec­on­cil­ing how he can like Sunya while stay­ing re­spect­ful to his father.

 It’s a se­ri­ous ques­tion, as she’s his only ally against a bully pick­ing on both of them. As he’s go­ing to a Chris­tian school, he frames his con­flict as Fifth Com­mand­ment (hon­or­ing his father) vs. Ninth Com­mand­ment (not tell­ing lies). In this and other seg­ments, Pitcher pro­vides a plau­si­ble view of a how a 10-year-old thinks and pro­cesses his reve­la­tions.

Un­for­tu­nately, even a clever 10-year-old can’t think his way past the rea­sons his mother is ab­sent, so he dreams up an im­prob­a­ble, ad­ven­tur­ous, and highly en­ter­tain­ing scheme to make her show up.

This is a school novel as well as a novel about grief. Pitcher, a for­mer English teacher, gives us a cou­ple of genre set pieces: a big-game scene on the soc­cer pitch, and a cli­mac­tic con­fron­ta­tion with the bully.

They’re re­lated, and strongly in­te­grated into the emo­tional themes of the novel.

Pitcher de­mo­nizes no char­ac­ter, ex­cept pos­si­bly the hap­less teacher of Jamie’s class­room. Even Dad, the an­gry al­co­holic, is given his due as the par­ent try­ing to keep the fam­ily to­gether.

She also avoids giv­ing Jamie and his fam­ily a myth­i­cal clo­sure of their grief. In­stead, she crafts some­thing more hon­est and more real — a way for the fam­ily to go on.