Besides having a charming cover (the paperback one is nowhere near as good as the trade paperback), My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher may be one of the best books of this year, an especially noteworthy achievement since it is ostensibly geared towards teens.
The story starts with the line ‘My sister lives on the mantlepiece’. From there we discover that the protagonist’s sister, Rose, was killed in a terrorist attack at the age of ten. Since then the family has become less than functional, with the mother leaving with a man from her support group and the father turning into an alcoholic. Rose’s twin Jasmine, and Jamie the protagonist, become secondary to the golden urn on the mantelpiece. The ashes get cake, balloons and presents while the living children feed and school themselves.
Jamie meets the wonderful Sunya, who styles herself as Girl M, her hijab flying in the wind as she saves Jamie from school bullies. Probably one of the most memorable characters I’ve come across this year, Sunya is part of the novel’s exploration of Islamophobia in England and she really is as charming as she is brave and brilliant. Jamie, who is only ten and raised by his racist father to believe that all Muslims make bombs in their bedrooms only to blow up beautiful daughters, now has a Muslim girl who becomes his friend despite his best efforts to avoid her.
The subject material is remarkably heavy (alcoholism, abandonment, Islamophobia, bullying and eating disorders) but is dealt with so deftly and intelligently that I found it uplifting and absolutely heartbreaking at the same time. Jamie’s victimisation by teachers and bullies, Sunya’s ostracism, Jasmine’s desperate struggle to look after her little brother while also trying to separate herself from her dead sister’s ghost, all of it melds into the kind of novel that transcends misery memoir status by being honest and celebratory of the good things that still happen in spite of the bad.
I think this title is unfairly lost to the children’s market. I think it is as much an adult’s book, because no matter how old we get we still remember what it was like when the only person that listened was the cat. I love the dig at judges like Simon Cowell in the Britain’s Got Talent Show, which Jamie and Jas enter in an attempt to get their parents back together. Some of the humour is so sharp and so dry that I think most kids will miss it. Definitely a gift for the teens in the family as well as everyone else, but I think I’ll be keeping my copy to myself. If I lend it out, I know it won’t come back.