Annabel Pitcher’s debut novel has earned four starred reviews landed on Kirkus’ Best Children’s Books of 2012 and the Atlantic Wire’s YA/Middle-Grade 2012 Book Awards (in the “Most Deftly Handled” category). Originally published in the UK in 2011, this is a haunting story about how grief and hatred destroys families, told through the voice of a 10-year-old boy trying to make sense of it all.
Yes, that’s right. The protagonist is a 10-year-old. Which raises one question right off the bat: Who is this book for? Kirkus lists ages 10-14, while SLJ and the publisher list grades 7-10 (or ages 12-15, roughly). The content is probably best suited to young teens (13 to 15, much as SLJ says), but the voice is so young. Could this be a nostalgia read for that audience? (Do young teens read new books as nostalgia reads??) Does the youth of the protagonist make this more suited for the Newbery audience (of course, as a British import, this isn’t actually eligible for the Newbery at all), and not a true Printz contender? What do we do with these books that really are liminal — not J because of content, not YA because they’re too young? Would this have been better served written for an adult audience, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in a the Night Time or Room, where the thematic scope and young voice don’t pull in different directions, to the detriment of the novel?
Jamie Matthews cannot cry about his sister Rose’s death, because he doesn’t remember her. She was killed five years ago by a terrorist bomb in Trafalgar Square. Meanwhile, Jamie’s mother moves out of their London apartment to live with a man she meets at a grief support group, prompting Jamie’s father to move the family to the Lake District for a new start, and to get away from Muslims at whom he directs all his anger. Jas, Jamie’s older sister and Rose’s twin, is fifteen, doesn’t eat, and has pink hair. This small family is shattered by Rose’s horrific death, but rather than deal with it together, they isolate each other so they don’t have to feel anything.
(Side note: This is one of those books that had me thinking a lot about other works. Early on in reading this book, I mentioned to Karyn that the writing, particularly the voice, was reminiscent of How I Live Now. Incidentally, that book is a favorite of Annabel Pitcher. Both authors are winners of the Branford Boase Award, an award given in the UK for outstanding debut novels for children. And was anyone else reminded of the talent show scene from About a Boy after reading Jas and Jamie’s talent show experience, which I’ll get to in a minute?)
Jamie, as the novel’s narrator, is unable to analyze or articulate what is going on with his family. All he knows is what he sees. Jas doesn’t eat, Dad drinks, Mom is gone. At his new school, Jamie can’t bring himself to admit that Rose is dead and his Mother’s left them, so he makes up stories about his happy family and the great things they do together. Of course, being the quiet new kid in the class, he’s soon the target of bullying, and the one girl who befriends him is Muslim.
It’s important to note the novel’s plot, something we usually don’t discuss in detail here, because it’s the book’s worst feature. Pitcher asks her readers to accept so many plot elements that alone would be plausible, but together stretch the limits of believability.
Jamie doesn’t even make the alternate roster for the school soccer team, but as fate would have it, he’s needed to play in a match and becomes the hero of the game by scoring the winning goal. If this were the novel’s climax, it would be unoriginal but acceptable. But then, in the second half of the novel, Jamie has convinced Jas to enter a televised talent competition (bearing a strong resemblance to Britain’s Got Talent!) and they invite both of their parents to come, believing that their performance will reunite the family. They perform, the judges love Jas, both parents are there, and it turns out that Jamie’s mom hasn’t responded to their letters (letters!) for at least four months because she was in Egypt with her boyfriend. A mother who runs away from the mess of her grieving family? Plausible. A mother who isn’t reachable by email and has a teenage daughter without email? Myth Busted.
Death, parental abandonment, alcoholism, anorexia, bullying, and racism—seen through Jamie’s eyes, these issues are treated sensitively for sure, but when Pitcher resolves all of these threads, it’s a bit too neat. Jamie finally understands the grief that follows death through the all-too-convenient death of his beloved cat; I’m not gonna lie, this destroyed me. But I ALWAYS cry over dead animals, ask anyone. The cat’s demise also allows Dad to finally let go of Rose and bury her ashes—something he’s been unable to do for five years—and he begins to be Dad again. Jamie stands up to the bullies to defend Sunya from racist taunts, and everyone tries to act like a family again. It’s not that these issues are resolved; it’s the convenience of how it all happens.
The plot is not the only place where Pitcher falters. Although she expertly characterizes Jamie, not all of the characters are so fully realized. Jamie’s Muslim school friend, Sunya, in particular seems to exist as a perfect girl a) to illustrate the ugliness of racism, and b) to help Jamie make whatever emotional discoveries he needs to make. Sunya pretends that they are superheroes together to help make Jamie brave, she helps him understand that not all Muslims are terrorists, she helps him be creative, she helps him love. When they aren’t on good terms—this is a rocky friendship, naturally—Sunya prompts Jamie to wrestle with the feeling that being friends with her is disrespectful to his father. Even in one moment when Sunya expresses her desire to be “normal,” showing some vulnerability and nuance to her identity, she establishes a motive for Jamie to come to Sunya’s aid when she is bullied. Perhaps we only see one side to Sunya because she is filtered through Jamie’s perspective, but she ultimately feels more like a plot device than a full character.
Plot and characters are flawed, but Pitcher’s prose is lyrical and readable. Through simple language and unexpected metaphors and similes that reflect a young mind, Pitcher firmly establishes that Jamie is an emotionally damaged and stunted child. His thoughts are a jumble of innocence and pre-adolescence, but Pitcher maintains a tight grip on his voice that is fully believable for this story. This is a boy who, since age five, has had emotionally distant parents who demand that he feel sad about a person he can’t remember. He is resentful of Rose and the attention she takes away from him, but his feelings are clouded by guilt and confusion over the situation. Although the plotting falters, there is an emotional truth to Jamie’s journey towards healing.
Towards the end of the book, Jas has a poignant moment with Jamie. She tells him about losing one of her five teddy bears, but loving the others more because of the loss. In keeping with Jamie’s perspective, he says it’s a pointless story, but of course we know that it’s not pointless at all. It’s a bold move for Pitcher, because through this metaphor she’s telling her reader exactly what this book is about: Families may not be perfect, but no matter what they should stick together — and adversity should be a reason to be closer. As with the rest of this novel, the delivery doesn’t ring true, but the sentiment is honest. Alas, earnest sentiment is not a stand in for sophisticated writing, and this is not a serious contender. Still, Annabel Pitcher is an author to watch: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece has enough bright moments to promise better things to come.
(And speaking of bright moments, if you want to hear my favorite Time Lord read My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, David Tennant reads the audiobook. Available only in the U.K., but the clip from The Guardian is a nice treat.)
Some of you may have been reading this post and shaking your head in disagreement. Let us know what you thought in the comments!