My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece – Book Review

The year took off to a fabulous start with “Beyond The Limits”. As much as I worried how the rest of the books would match up to that one, along came this gem of a book. And what a wonderful read it was! I’m still soaking it in, and how much ever I write it won’t do justice to how lovely this little piece of literature is. I’d rather tell you to go read it yourself. But I’ll try and summarize so you get a gist of what this beauty is about.

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Title – My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece

Author – Annabel Pitcher

Genre – Fiction

“My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some of her does – a collar bone, two ribs, a bit of skull, and a little toe. Three of her fingers, her right elbow and kneecap are buried in a graveyard in London. The police found ten bits of her body. Mum wanted a grave that she could visit. Dad wanted a cremation to sprinkle the ashes into the sea. So they each got five bits. Mum put hers in a white coffin beneath a white headstone. Dad burned his share and put the ashes in a golden urn.”

The opening lines are haunting. Jamie Mathews was five years old when his sister Rose became a victim of a terror attack. Jamie doesn’t remember much besides what his other sister Jasmine (Rose’s twin) has told him. The family was out on a walk when the then ten year old twins ran into the park. Dad told them not to go too far and Jasmine obediently returned to the family. Dad called out to Rose once more, but mum said to let her be. That’s when the bomb went off. There was a bang and smoke and Rose was blown to bits. (Twelve timed bombs placed in bins around the city that killed sixty two people, of which Rose was the youngest victim).

Cut to the present, Jamie is ten and Jasmine is fifteen. Jamie hasn’t yet cried over losing Rose. But that’s because he doesn’t remember much of her. Their parents have split. Dad still blames mum for allowing Rose into the park where the bomb was. He has turned to alcohol to stave off his depression, and barely goes to work. Mum had enough and left. With their mother abandoning them, and dad too drunk to notice, the siblings take care of each other. The ashes have not yet been sprinkled into the sea even though it’s been five years – dad cannot bring himself to do it. And that’s how Rose still lives on the mantelpiece. The urn receives a slice of cake on birthdays, a stocking for Christmases, and even gets the front seat on drives.

Jamie finds himself in a new home in a new place, with no friends except for Roger his cat, and a nameless goldfish in the pond in his backyard. In his new school, no one knows about Rose and his broken family. He finds himself to be a misfit, until he meets Sunya – the only Muslim child in school, who is harassed due to the color of her skin and her religion, her only ally being her imagination. “Sunya has more imagination than the most imaginative person, Willy Wonka”. Sunya is not the popular child, but receives a considerable amount of Christmas cards, all sent to herself, signed by superheroes – Batman, Shrek, The Green Goblin, and the rest of the fraternity have all sent her their Christmas greetings. Whether it is essays on summer holidays, or fabulous weekends, or poems about families or Christmas plans, and Jamie knows his sister is dead and his dad is a drunk and his mum has abandoned him and his fifteen year old sister is struggling to run the house and nothing is fabulous, all it takes is Sunya’s whisper over the desk, “make something up”, her eyes twinkling like “puddles in sunshine”, and the day brightens up for a few moments at least. In Jamie’s school work Rose is still alive, mum is still home, dad goes to work, and his family is whole and happy. The two become an unlikely pair, standing up for each other against bullies. There are heartwarming scenes, like this exchange between the two friends – “How many people have you saved today, Girl M? I asked. She pretended to count on her fingers. Nine hundred and thirty seven, she shrugged. It’s been a quiet day. How about you, Spiderman? Eight hundred and thirteen, I said, but I started late and finished early. And we exploded into laughter.”

Dad holds strong views against Muslims, believing Muslims killed his daughter, and doesn’t want to be associated with any of them. And prohibits Jamie from meeting Sunya or her family as well. “Dad says ‘Muslims infect this country like a disease’, which isn’t true. They’re not contagious, they don’t give you red spots, and as far as I know, they don’t even cause  a temperature.” Jamie is confused – the commandments he learned in school say one must respect one’s parents, so he can’t disrespect dad by speaking to Sunya. But the commandments also say not to spread lies about one’s neighbors, and if dad calls his neighbors terrorists that means he’s lying. The writing very poignantly describes a young child’s dilemma due to parental prejudices. One beautifully described scene – While trick-or-treating on Halloween, dad thinks Jamie’s friend is lovely. The young girl is dressed as a ghost covered in a bed-sheet, and dad thinks he heard her name as Sonya. But in school when she’s dressed in a hijab, dad warns Jamie to stay away from ‘Sunya’. How does the attire or name change who a person is? Jamie once peeked into Rose’s urn when he was younger, expecting the ashes to be beige for skin and white for bones – but ashes look the same all over, for any part of the body, for any race in the world. Jamie’s observations in Sunya’s home – “Sunya’s house was no different to mine. Sammy the dog looked like an English pet, not a Muslim one. The mantelpiece had all the right things on it – photos, candles, and vases of flowers. Not sisters.”

Sunya knows she is discriminated against, but instead of trying to fit in with others, she makes a world for herself where she lets others in. “You should understand we are the same, she said. I am not a Muslim, I said. No, but you are a superhero. Spiderman, I am Girl M. And she ran down the corridor, her scarf flapping around her body like a superhero’s cape.”

The bond of family between siblings Jamie and Jasmine is as beautifully displayed as the bond of friendship between Jamie and Sunya.  Jasmine’s parts are expressed well. She has known Rose far longer than Jamie has, ten years (and nine months in the womb) to be precise. Having lost her twin, she describes the feeling as ” a shadow without a person”. Dyeing her hair bright pink, painting her nails black, and her little attempts to look as different as her dead identical twin. And at the same time, looking after little Jamie, taking care of the house, managing school – all at fifteen years of age. “Your smile lifts my soul into the sky. Your strength gives me the courage to fly. A kite, I soar so grounded yet free. Your love brings out the best in me.” A song originally sung and recorded by the twins, that dad plays every year on Rose’s death anniversary, but is actually the siblings’ anthem to each other – finding support and strength in one another.  Jamie’s attempts at interpreting terror attacks with a game of “what if’s” – what if they hadn’t been to the park, what if pigeons didn’t exist and Rose hadn’t gone off to feed them, what if Rose was as obedient as Jasmine – she’d still be alive and the family would be whole.

There are side stories of a talent competition that the siblings partake in, in an effort to get their parents together. A football match where Jamie strives to prove his worth. The school preparations for Christmas and the parent-teacher meetings. Confrontations with the bullies at school – Jamie taunted for being an outsider, Sunya for having a different skin color. Jamie losing his beloved cat Roger. The part where Jamie finally begins to cry is heartbreaking – What would drive one to cry over a run-over cat but not a blown-to-bits sister? There’s an absolutely magnificent analogy between losing a pet and losing a child – this forms the highlight of the book with Jamie finally realizing why Rose is still on the mantelpiece, and dad realizing why there’s a bloodied dead cat in the house. What drives us to do the things we do when faced with loss? Why do we focus all our attention on people after they have gone, and in the process neglect the ones still with us? Why is it so hard to let go and say goodbye when a person is dead, but that love and attention is not provided when the same person is alive? How do you grieve when you can’t feel grief? The book raises some other pertinent questions as well – Why do we form our decisions based on the opinions of others? Do grownups know everything? Sometimes it’s scary to stand up for oneself, but when it comes to standing up for someone you care about, you find the courage you never knew you possessed.

The book teaches us to be hopeful, but not at the extent of failing to realize what better things might be in store for us. Jamie’s analogies to make sense of situations are splendid. “I swallowed all the doubt and disappointment and anger like vitamin pills, too big to get down even with water.” “All the facts that were strong and safe and big and true came crashing down like buildings in an earthquake. The one in my bedroom was shaking things up and smashing stuff to the ground and changing my life forever.” “The stars shone in the sky like hundreds of cats’ eyes on a dark road.” “My heart roared. Louder than a dog, louder than a lion, louder than a fire-breathing monster.”

“We’ll do it together.” These four words string the entire happenings of the book, and make you burst out in tears when you take it all in. This book gave a me a good cry after  a long time, but in a happy way. It makes you look for the best in every situation, be optimistic, pick up the pieces and  move on, give others hope without letting them down once they turn hopeful, and know that change isn’t bad, good things can happen too. This is the author’s debut novel and an absolute delightful read. The cover is amazing as well – speaks so much with so little on it. The sketch is Jamie’s understanding of his sister on the mantelpiece – an urn with a head, arms and legs. There’s so much life on each page, in spite of the fact that it features the narrator as a ten year old. Issues of racism, alcoholism, prejudices, parental abandonment, childhood grief, bullying are all delicately handled, and leave the reader with much to ponder upon after completing the book. Laugh-out-loud in certain places, and heartbreaking in others, a much recommended read, this one.

Rating – 5/5

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