Every so often I read a book that just gets to me somehow. In 2010 it was Never Let Me Go, in 2011, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower.
Recently it was My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher, a debut novel about a family torn apart by grief, told from the point of view of 10 year old Jamie.
Jamie was 5 when his older sister, Rose, was killed in a terrorist attack in London 5 years earlier and he knows he’s supposed to be sad that she’s dead but he kind of isn’t, really. He’s sad that his Mum has left for a chap she met at grief counselling and he’s sad that his other sister, Rose’s twin, is sad and going off the rails a bit and he’s sad that his Dad is so lost in his grief for Rose that he has all but forgotten his other two children but Jamie doesn’t really remember Rose all that well.
Just before what would have been Rose’s 15th birthday, Jamie’s dad uproots Jamie and Jas and takes them to the Lake District for a ‘fresh start’ which is actually code for ‘a place where there are no Muslims.’ He places Rose’s ashes on the mantelpiece in the new house and continues to drink himself into oblivion. Meanwhile, Jamie waits desperately for his Mother to return home and tries to settle in at his new school, where he thinks the fact that nobody knows about his dead sister is a blessing and so doesn’t say a word, befriending a Muslim girl and trying to ignore the bullies.
This is a beautifully written book, and paints a heartbreaking picture of a family torn apart by grief and of a little boy trying to figure out how the world works.
Jamie’s father is racist beyond belief, blaming the Muslim religion as a whole for the death of his daughter but Jamie never takes sides – his sister was killed in a terrorist attack, the end and I love that about him, about children in general. His developing friendship with the Muslim girl at school, his slow realisation that not all Muslims fit in the box his Father tries to place them in and his guilt at becoming friends with a Muslim at all are incredibly powerful; the scenes where Jamie visits his friend Sunya at home and realizes she has more of a family life than he does despite her religious beliefs, his guilt later when learning about the ten commandments and trying to relate them to his friendship with Sunya and the responsibilty he feels towards his father and the eventual showdown between Sunya’s parents and Jamie’s Dad left me feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach; Pitcher’s storytelling is so simple but so effective.
This book sounds depressing. I am aware of that. It’s really not, though. It’s sad, of course it is and there is a scene where Jamie eventually figures out what loss is all about and why Rose’s death affected everybody so deeply that you will need a pack of tissues for, but it’s also uplifting and funny and so so lovely; so lovely in parts that it brought a lump to my throat. It carries an important message as well: please don’t judge people based on the colour of their skin or who they choose to pray too because people are so much more than that. Muslims might have killed Jamie’s sister, but a Muslim kind of saved Jamie’s life too – it’s what’s on the inside of a person that counts and that is such an important message right now. The word Muslim shouldn’t make you turn the other way, or stiffen up, you shouldn’t look suspiciously at that guy on the train just because his skin is dark and he’s carrying a rucksack. People need to be more like Jamie, they need to be open to life and to love and to not let their prejudices stand in their way.