Five years ago, Jamie's sister, Rose, was killed in a terrorist attack in London. Rose's twin sister, Jasmine (Jaz) survived as did the rest of the family but the tragedy has utterly devastated all of them. His parents fought over the remaining ten body parts of Rose, with his mother burying part of Rose in a cemetery while Jamie's father placed the ashes from Rose's body parts in an urn. Eventually, Jamie's mother left his dad for another man, Nigel, from the support group his mom was attending. His father now drinks and doesn't work. Jaz, tired of being dressed like her sister Rose for the past five years, arrived home on her fifteenth birthday with pink hair and a nose ring. She also has developed an eating disorder as a result of the family stress. And Jamie hasn't cried at all for Rose, a sister he barely remembers.
Jamie's father, unable to cope with the death of Rose and the break up of his marriage moves the family to the Lake District where he believes there are no Muslims and the English way of life rules. They live in a ramshackle cottage in Ambleside where Jamie attends the Ambleside Church of England Primary School.
But things are no better for Jamie and Jaz at Ambleside as their father spirals downwards, often drunk and unable to care for them. The urn holding Rose's ashes is sacred and Rose literally "lives" on the mantlepiece as their dad talks to the ashes and even puts a piece of Jamie's birthday cake next to it.
At his new school Jamie is tormented by Daniel, the teacher's pet and class bully. There is however one redeeming aspect of his life in Ambleside Primary School and that is the friendship he develops with Sunya, a Muslim girl who wears a hajib. Like Jamie, Sunya is an outsider who is also taunted by Daniel and the other children. Sunya encourages Jamie to be strong and when he wears his Spiderman T-shirt to school she tells him she is also a superhero, Girl M. Unlike Jamie though, who tends to cower when confronted, Sunya gets revenge on Daniel, in her own time and on her own terms, often in very humorous ways.
Jamie is extremely conflicted over his friendship with Sunya who acts as a foil to Jamie's racist father. While Jamie's father talks about Muslims making bombs and killing people, Jamie knows that few Muslims behave like this and certainly not ten year old Muslim girls. Despite this Jamie struggles because he feels that he is betraying his father and so sometimes he is not a good friend to Sunya. But it is Sunya to whom Jamie opens up, telling her about his family and how his sister was killed by in an Islamic terrorist bombing.
Jamie also struggles with his father's expectations of how he should grieve over Rose. Jamie was very young when Rose died and he doesn't really remember his sister. As a result he hasn't cried at all over her death, something his father finds strange. Instead, Jamie is more concerned about fitting in at school, being strong and confident like a superhero and his cat Roger. Sunya is the first person who Jamie tells about not missing Rose.
Eventually things become so dysfunctional in their family that Jamie and Jaz decide to enter a talent contest in the hopes of bringing their parents back together. Missing their mother who has completely abandoned them, they hope that their mother will understand their predicament.It is this trip plus a second tragedy that helps set the family on the path to healing.
My Sister Lives On The Mantlepiece is a brilliant piece of writing, that engages the reader fully, capturing the sense of loss, hurt and confusion of a young boy. These feelings never totally overwhelm the reader however, because of the wonderful comic relief that Pitcher places in her novel. Despite the terribly sad circumstances of Jamie's family, many parts of the novel are quite funny. Jamie struggles to come to terms with many losses in his young life; the loss of a sister he doesn't really remember, the total abandonment of his mother, and the loss of care by his father. But his narration is witty and believable, allowing the reader to identify with him.
The great strength in this novel is the incredible relationships between several characters; Jamie and Sunya, and Jamie and Jaz. Abandoned by both of their parents emotionally and their mother physically, Jamie and Jaz work together, supporting each other to cope with an almost impossible situation.
My only complaint about this novel is that virtually every adult in the story is nasty. Jamie's parents are irresponsible and self absorbed, Mrs. Farmer and the headmaster are clueless and even the talent show hosts are ignorant and rude. The only parent who is nice is Sunya's mother.
Overall, My Sister Lives On The Mantlepiece is one of the best books I have read this year and I highly recommend it. This is author Annabel Pitcher's debut novel and was first published in the UK in 2011.
My Sister Lives On The Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher
New York: Little, Brown & Company 2012