Ten-year-old Jamie Matthews has just moved to the Lake District with his Dad and his teenage sister, Jasmine for a 'Fresh New Start'. Five years ago his sister's twin, Rose, was blown up by a terrorist bomb. His parents are wrecked by their grief, Jasmine turns to piercing, pink hair and stops eating. The family falls apart. But Jamie hasn't cried in all that time. To him Rose is just a distant memory. Jamie is far more interested in his cat, Roger, his birthday Spiderman T-shirt, and in keeping his new friend Sunya a secret from his dad. And in his deep longing and unshakeable belief that his Mum will come back to the family she walked out on months ago. When he sees a TV advert for a talent show, he feels certain that this will change everything and bring them all back together once and for all.
It's the story of life after loss, family and friendship despite differences. It's a coming-of-age story with some seriously dark and deeply sad foundations.
Despite the heaviness of the topics it discusses, however, the book feels almost hopeful. It's set in Ambleside in the Lake District (coincidentally one of my favourite places on the planet) and begins when Jamie is about to start a new school, far from the London home he grew up in.
There is a cautiously hopeful tone to the beginning of the book – new place, new start. Jamie is determined to make things work in his new life, starting with making friends. He didn't have any back in London and was bullied by the other children, so he sets out to make new friends. He is, however, immediately rejected by the other boys in his class, and even bullied by them (although I don't quite understand why they started to pick on him, if I'm honest ... there seemed to be no immediate reason why that would have happened).
The one girl in his class who does reach out for him is the one person he feels he shouldn't ever speak to – a Muslim girl named Sunya. Jamie's father blames Muslims for the death of his sister and he feels it would be betraying his dad to make friends with one. Try as he might, though, he can't resist Sunya's quirky charm (and neither could I!) and they soon become good friends, pretending to be superheroes, with Jamie in his Spider-man t-shirt and Sunya masquerading as Girl M. I adored their friendship and it was definitely one of the more heart-warming things in the book (and one of my favourite things about it). As Sunya says, "Mums and Dads aren't always right," and this book really shows how despite the words of parents, children are capable of deciphering right and wrong for themselves.
Another favourite relationship in the book was between Jamie and his remaining sister, Jasmine – Rose's identical twin sister. We get a glimpse (through Jamie's eyes) at how difficult life is for her without her twin, and how differently her parents treat her now, especially as she has changed so she's not quite so much like Rose any more. I felt desperately sad for both of them throughout the book, and felt every ounce of injustice on Jas's behalf. I wanted nothing more than for their parents to realise that they still have two living children that they need to give attention and love to, but it was not to be (something that made me incredibly frustrated and angry).
The issues raised by this book are incredibly difficult, but I think Annabel Pitcher handles them with grace and care.
Alcoholism is a prominent issue in the book, with Jas and Jamie's father falling deeper and deeper into a drunken hole, leaving them to fend for themselves. The way the siblings reacted to this felt real; they looked after themselves as best they could.
Grief was obviously a big discussion point as well, and I liked that it was observed through the eyes of a character who didn't really remember Rose. He was caught up in the whirlwind of his family's grief, but remained detached from it, not remembering his sister well enough to feel the same way.
Racism and Islamophobia also play a large part in the story. "Muslims killed my daughter" are words spoken by Jamie's Dad on more than a handful of occasions. In his grief, he blindly blames all people os the same religion as the terrorists that took credit for the attacks that killed Rose. This thought process is something I find incredibly difficult to understand, but I suppose that is kind of the point. Jamie feels he shouldn't have a muslim friend as it would hurt his father, but also expresses that he knows what his father says about Muslims is incorrect and wrong.
Racism comes into play in the school playground, with Daniel and the other school bullies calling Sunya 'Curry Germs'. Although the Islamophobia was discussed well and in depth, I didn't feel that the racist comments were really addressed enough for me, with Jamie only directly expressing his feelings towards the end of the book.
I suppose you could also say that neglect features fairly strongly in the story. Jamie and Jas are largely left to their own devices by their father, despite being only 10 and 15 years old. Jamie is allowed to wear the same t-shirt every single day, even when he is clearly dirty and smelly, when holes begin to appear in the fabric and stains are spread all across it. And yet no one (not even his school teachers!) even asks him about it, let alone makes him remove and wash it. This was one of my big problems with the book – how would no one notice the neglect of his father when he wore the same disgusting, smelly, soiled t-shirt to school every day? How would this not raise a million red flags?
Another slight problem I had with the story was its setting. As someone who knows Ambleside (and, in fact, the Lake District) really quite well, the setting didn't quite fit for me. If the house they were renting was out in the countryside, how could Jamie and Jasmine possibly walk to school? I go to Ambleside almost every year, and I can't think of a single property outside of the main town that it would be possible to walk to school from (especially for a ten-year-old boy). I think such a magnificent place could have been used so much more effectively in a story like this.
However, these are really the only things that struck me as unrealistic in an otherwise well-thought-through and heartfelt story.
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is proof that good things often come in small packages; it was short, but sweet. Jamie's narration and young age gave the book an air of innocence, whilst also tackling issues head-on and with the untainted, unbiased mind of a child.
Tears were shed at unexpected moments, for both good and terrible reasons. Although there isn't a lot of time to be spent within the pages of this little book, the emotional attachment is real. I just want to take Jamie (and his cat, Roger), Jas and Sunya and hold them protectively. Despite its problems, I think this one is going to stay with me for a long time.