My Family Is Not Living On the Mantelpiece

I am happy to report that my family is not living on the mantelpiece. I can just imagine your reaction. What?!!! Are you crazy? What are you talking about?

I am not saying that my family are Little People, a la The Secret World of Arrietty. No, my family is normal-sized, thank you very much. I am having an allusion to the novel My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, a novel by Annabel Pitcher. The novel is going to be released in August 2012, stateside. (Originally published in England by Orion Publishing Group).



Are you thinking that someone's sister is miniature sized now? No, no one's sister is miniature sized in this novel, at least I'm not aware of any.

When, Jamie Matthews, the protagonist of the novel, was five years old, his sister, Rose, died in a terrorist bombing attack. Since then, the ashes of his sister have lived on Jamie's mantelpiece, hence the name of the novel. Jamie's family has become different since then; his mom has walked out on the family and is in an affair with a man named Nigel, Jamie's sister has died her hair pink, his father is an alcoholic, and Jamie? As a ten year old boy, he's trying to figure out how to survive in the midst of this and how to cope with having a dead sister he barely knew nor remembered.

Jamie makes a new friend, Sunya, at his new school in the English countryside. The only problem is, Sunya's Muslim and Jamie's father is convinced that Muslims are the root of all evil, and the root of the reason why Rose died. Jamie tries to make sense of his father's anger and the sheer niceness of Sunya, a friendship that transcends everything.

Annabel Pitcher is an excellent writer as she captures Jamie's ten year old innocence perfectly. The novel is pitch-perfect. I came into the novel, a little worried that the novel was too heavy, especially since the protagonist is a ten year old boy. I shouldn't have worried the novel tells the truth. The novel doesn't spend the whole 200+ pages trying to make sense of what grief is. It doesn't spend time moping about a girl who Jamie barely remembers. Jamie says, "My therapist in London said I was In denial and still suffering from shock. She said It will hit you one day and then you will cry. Apparently I haven't since October 7 almost five years ago, which was when it happened. Last year, Mum and Dad sent me to that thin woman 'cos they thought it was weird I didn't cry about Rose. I wanted to ask if they'd cry about something that I couldn't remember, but I bit my tongue."

Right now, I am closer to being twenty than I am to ten. It's weird because when  I started this blog, I was a lot closer to ten. It doesn't seem like such a long time ago that I clicked, "Start New Blog" on blogger.com. What I wanted to say or go with this is that adults sometimes forget what it's like to be ten and not have any cares. We (am I including myself into the adult group? I suppose I am) superimpose our feelings of grief, worry, and others onto little children. The feelings that we have because of our experiences. I'm not saying that young children don't have feelings or are too young to understand, because they aren't. I still am a child enough to remember the frustration that I felt when people older than me brushed me off with, "Oh you won't understand."

Then, I wanted to shout, "Yes, I understand. I am old enough." Jamie is the same. Yes, he's a ten year old, but that does not mean that he is oblivious. He knows that his father drinks too much, he knows that his father won't like that fact that he's friends with Sunya simply because she's Muslim, he knows that his sister, Jas, has something going on because she's not eating. What we forget is that children have innocence but that innocence is not stupidity. They see the world without our lenses of hatred without basis and they see the world without anger.

Annabel Pitcher captured these essences of a ten year old in simple sentences with depth. She didn't write from the perspective of an adult pretending to be ten, she wrote as a ten year old. She was ten years old. That's why the novel was one of the few novels with the perspective of a child that made me want to cry. It was so simple, but so... provocative. The novel is largely in part about grief, but it doesn't stuff it with cliches about losing someone too early, about God calling home someone too young. It's none of that. Life is not a bad drama in which some guy cries out heart-wrenchingly on the ground, screaming at the sky.

Do I understand death? I don't think I do entirely, nor do I pretend to know. Ten year old boys are like that too. We forget that sometimes, but Annabel Pitcher reminds us, with her novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece.


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Maira Gall