My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

“My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some if her does. Three of her fingers, her right elbow and her kneecap are buried in a graveyard in London. Mum and Dad had a big argument when the police found ten bits of her body. Mum wanted a grave she could visit. Dad wanted a cremation and to sprinkle the ashes in the sea. That’s what Jasmine told me anyway. She remembers more than I do.”

I am destined to spend my reading life having my heart torn apart because I can’t resist a tearjerker. And Annabel Pitcher’s touching and candid story about a family trying to put itself together again after the death of a child, had me reaching for the tissues more than once.

Five years after his older sister, Rose, died in a London terrorist attack, 10-year-old Jamie’s family is still in turmoil. His parents have split up and his mother is largely absent from his life. His father remedies his grief and guilt with vodka. His teenaged sister, Jasmine, Rose’s twin, barely eats and has grown alarmingly thin. And Jamie has questions. He doesn’t understand why his family worries because he has never mourned Rose’s death – he barely remembers her. Or why his friendship with the pintsized Muslim girl, Sunya, his only friend at a new school where he finds himself an easy target for bullies, will upset his father.

I adored the characters in this novel. They are so well written and unforgettable. I don’t often enjoy books written from a child’s perspective, but Jamie won me over immediately. His sweetly naive and often downright cheeky narrative is fresh and honest. And I couldn’t get enough of brave Sunya. She’s a fiercely loyal little badass, and she lends a bit of sunshine to such a seriously themed novel. Nurturing and sassy Jasmine’s sense of responsibility towards her father and brother, taking care of them while she struggles to take care of herself and escape Rose’s shadow, broke my heart. Even Roger the cat has a larger than life presence. And Rose, even though she’s never physically present, is surely the most interesting character. We only get to know her through the eyes of her family, but through their memories and anecdotes, she’s brought vividly to life.

This is a timely and hopeful novel. Pitcher skilfully and sympathetically explores themes of prejudice, alcoholism, abandonment, and grief – which she portrays especially well. There’s often a touch of humour to her writing, offering a bit of relief from its heavy subjects, and I appreciated her wit and warmth. In the end we don’t find a happily-ever-after, but rather a family coming to terms with and learning to accept eachother and their personal tragedy. Definitely a must-read.

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