My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece, Annabel Pitcher

Posted: April 12, 2012 in Books, Carnegie 2012, Criticism, Library, Literature, Reading, Reviews, Sanctuary, Teaching, Young Adult
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I have read this solely because it is on the Carnegie 2012 Shortlist which I am leading a shadowing group for at my school. Something about the title, the rather pastel chintzy cover, the subject matter simply didn’t appeal. At the risk of being judgmental it struck me as a rather girly book.

All I can say is that I was wrong. It happens. More frequently than I like, but this time I am glad to say I was wrong.

The story revolves around Jamie, a ten year old boy whose remarkably well adjusted for a child whose older sister has been killed in a terrorist attack, whose mother’s left them, whose father’s an alcoholic and who’s being bullied at his new school. The novel revolves around the first term of the new school year and follows Jamie’s various triumphs and tribulations; his growing understanding of the world in which he lives.

It is not, despite the title, too much focused on the sister’s death. I had dreaded that this would become a mawkish clumsy coming-to-terms-with-death book. And whilst it does do that, it is by no means the entirety or even majority of the book. In fact, those parts of the book that deal with the sister are perhaps the least successfully managed: I wasn’t convinced by Roger the cat but without filling the review with spoilers I can’t really say more!

There were done rather contrived plot devices: seating Jamie beside Sunya at school set up a rather obvious plot trajectory, using the Britain’s Biggest Talent Show, paralleling the results of the Ofsted’s inspection with the family was a little obvious perhaps. However, whilst a dry analytical part of me recognised and gently scoffed at the devices, the other warmer (moister?) parts of me loved the way in which those devices played out.

There is something very evocative in Pitcher’s descriptive writing: she very often evokes an almost synaesthetic effect most obviously with the sparkles in Sunya’s eyes but also elsewhere such as the words that were too big to get past Jamie’s teeth like the cupboard his Dad tried to get through a door, or the word ‘sober’ hanging in the air like deodorant after its sprayed.

It was interesting having the bonus short story from Jasmine’s point of view too: Pitcher clearly changed her writing style for her narrators and it was a brave decision to choose Jamie over fifteen year old Jasmine as the narrator. But the relationship between the brother and sister was very nicely balanced between mutual irritation and mutual dependence. There was clearly potential in Jas’ story in its own right and the occasional references to how skinny and thin she was suggested that she was probably suffering from anorexia or some form of eating disorder. I wonder whether the earliest drafts of this story were narrated by her…

It is telling that Pitcher has worked in education – I think as an English teacher. Her description of Ofsted’s arrival and the sudden imposition of Brain Gym and Learning Objectives will make any teacher smile wryly if not laugh out loud. But it also shows in her understanding of the children she depicts. I genuinely felt that this was the voice of one of the most convincing child narrators I’ve come across. He is more concerned about getting enough party food whilst his parents towed over his mum’s affair; and dreads the emptiness of the house in case his dad had left a suicide note on the table.

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