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.