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I’ll Teach This Village How To Mourn

Erin reviews Annabel Pitcher's My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece, a story of the wild romance of grief and the tiny blossoms of hope.  REQUIRED READING, Y'ALL.

I’ll Teach This Village How To Mourn

BOOK REPORT for My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher

Cover Story: Yes, Yes, A Million Times Yes
BFF Charm: Makin' It Rain!
Swoonworthy Scale: A 3 on a High Interest Yield CD
Talky Talk: Heartbreakingly Hilarious
Bonus Factor: Faithful Pet, Diversity, The Non-Issues Issues, The Katniss Everdeen Award of Amazing Sisterness
Quasi-Questionable Factor: American Misunderstandings; Worst Mother Ever
Relationship Status: Until The Day My Body Leaves, I Will Regret That You Don't Breathe

Cover Story: Yes, Yes, A Million Times Yes

YES.  Excuse me while I channel one mister Montell Jordan, but THIS IS HOW WE DOOO IT.  This is how we do it, it's a great co-ver!  And I love it, brutha.  This cover in here got my numba!

Okay, I'll stop chanelling Montell, mostly because I could never hope to mimic his epic cool, but Y'ALL I LOVE THIS COVER.  It's a great combination of sweet and a little sad, just the way Jamie might see the world.  At first it's just a cute, hand-drawn cover but then you realize it's an urn there on the mantlepiece, and then you think about the title, and then you get super sad because someone is dead.  Dead but drawn well, which is about the most one could hope for.

Oh, but!  Check out the cover for this book in England.  GINGER SAY WHAT?  No.  No.  I love Gingers but HELL NAW this is just scary.  This looks like a better cover for WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN or something.  WHY ARE YOU SHUSHING ME, JAMIE?  BECAUSE YOU WANT TO MURDER ME?

(Don't worry; they updated it with this beauty:)

The Deal:

Hoo boy.  I want to try to get through this without crying but I'm probably going to quickly start clutching one of my pets and sobbing just thinking about this book.  No, no, it's okay; I'll drown my emotions in wine like a proper WASP.

Okay, so.  Jamie is a ten year old boy who hasn't cried in five years.  Five years ago, Jamie's older sister Rose died in a (fictional) terrorist bombing in London, which has fractured Jamie's family.  Rose's twin sister, Jasmine, has done all she can to distance herself from the spector of her dead sister.  Jamie's father has turned to drinking and hating his pain away.  And Jamie's mother has run off with a man from the Grief Support Group.

Which leads Jamie, Jasmine and their dad to move to a tiny village in the Lake District, and it isn't the world's most ideal situation.  Jamie rarely hears from his mom.  His dad is dead-to-the-world drunk, and spends most of his day passed out, when he isn't ranting about Muslims and, I don't know, voting for BNP candidates, I guess.  And 15 year old Jasmine is just trying to survive.

When Jamie meets Sunya, a bubbly, inventive classmate, he finally has someone with whom he can share his feelings.  But he can't share his friendship with Sunya with anyone, because his dad violently hates all Muslims.  After all, Muslims killed Rose, whose ashes rest on the mantlepiece . . .

BFF Charm: Makin' It Rain!

If I could build a shield of armor out of BFF charms and then dress Jamie in them so that his heart is safe from all the assholes in his life, I would.  I love him so, so much.  And even though he's only ten, and still has a bit of a child's outlook on life, I don't want to adopt him as much as I just want to befriend him (though Lord knows, he needs to be adopted).  Jamie is so inventive and kind, but best of all he's incredibly loyal to everyone he loves, even when that loyalty clashes with his own interests.  He's a boy who tries his very best to be good and sometimes screws it up.  He's a boy who'll wear the same shirt for an entire year just on the off-chance that the person who sent it will see it.  He's a boy who'll fight for his friends and fight for his family and understand when not everything can be put together again.

And!  Bonus BFF charms for Sunya and Jasmine!  Sunya is so clever and irrepressible - the kind of kid you'd have loved to be friends with as a kid, even though it's likely that her friendship would lead you to being suspended from school.  I just want to hang out with her and listen to her stories all day.  And Jasmine!  I can't even really say without spoiling stuff, but . . . Jasmine is just the best.

And you know what?  This is going to sound weird, but I might want to extend at least a "hey, let's hang out and get to know each other" charm to Mr Matthews.  Don't misunderstand me: he's a racist drunk who has essentially abandoned his living children in favor of worshiping the ashes of his dead child.  He isn't close to even being a good person.  Cliff Huxtable would be all, "uh, no way is this guy ever getting an award sharing my name and he certainly is not allowed to wear one of my sweaters."  He's not a good dad; he's not a good person.  But his grief is so real, his pain is so complete, that I couldn't help but want to give him my heart.  As much as I hate the person he has become, I can see very clearly into the person he used to be.  And that person was pretty okay.

Swoonworthy Scale: A 3 on a High-Interest Yield CD

You know how sometimes, you see two friends hanging out together, and you just KNOW they're going to end up together someday?  And you don't say anything to either of them, of course, cause you don't want them to get all freaked out and act weird around each other but you totally gossip about them with all your friends and you all decide that they're definitely going to hook up and then maybe you start a pool about when they'll get together and maybe you lose because you thought it would't take as long but then it did and then maybe you made a drunken bet with Henri that these friends would get married before Posh and Henri got married and then you lose that too, like, HURRY UP GUYS, I HAVE MONEY RIDING ON YOUR FUTURE.

Anyway, um.  Sometimes you feel that way about ten year old fictional characters too.  Jamie and Sunya are totally going to sit in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G, in about five years or so.

Talky Talk: Heartbreakingly Hilarious

Oh, this book.  THIS BOOK!  Y'all I feel like I am not being effusive enough about this book and that makes me sad because my goal is that you stop reading this review RIGHT NOW and go out and buy and read this book and then come back so we can cry and laugh together.  That's what I'm trying to do, because that's what you need to do.

Anyway, this is Pitcher's debut novel, and she writes it in a way that makes you want to tie her up, gag her, and suck out all of her talent juice and inject it into your body.  She perfectly captures the mind and voice of this quirky, sad ten-year old boy, and writes him so completely that even as you try to view life through your adult brain, you find that you can't.  Jamie's voice is so vibrant that you instantly crawl into his consciousness and see life just as he does.

And the book is at turns heartbreaking and hilarious, and often at the same time.  As an example, I can only quote the intro to the book, which is currently fighting Lolita's opening (Lolita!  My FAVORITE opening!) as my favorite of all time:

My sister Rose lives on the mantlepiece.  Well, some of 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 so he could sprinkle the ashes at sea. . .  They each got five bits.  Mum put hers in a fancy white coffin under a fancy white headstone that says My Angel on it.  Dad burned a collarbone, two ribs, a bit of skull and a little toe and put the ashes in a golden urn.  So they both got their own way, but - suprise, suprise - it didn't make them happy.  Mum says the graveyard's too depressing to visit.  And every anniversary, Dad tries to sprinkle the ashes but changes his mind at the last minute.  Something seems to happen right when Rose is about to be tipped into the sea.  One year in Devon there were these loads of swimming silver fish that looked like they couldn't wait to eat my sister.  And another year in Cornwall a seagull pooed on the urn just as Dad was about to open it.

Bonus Factor: Faithful Pet

All hail Roger, the cutest, furriest, most wonderful kitty in the whole universe!  Roger lets Jamie hug his fur and counts stars with him, although he sometimes acts unseemly by delivering a dead mouse on the doorstep.

Bonus Factor: Diversity

One of the many parts of this book that grabbed me was how lonely Sunya was in her diversity.  Because they live in a very tiny village, both Jamie and Sunya go to the only school around, which is a parochial school.  As the the teacher studiously moved all the students up the "Heaven" board* and the children made detailed mangers as a school assignment, Sunya's loneliness is just highlighted.  It's a really great portrait of rural towns and people who might feel "different" from the norm.

* Not that Muslims don't believe in Heaven, or Jannah, but this is all, like, angel wings and golden harpsichords and shizz.

Bonus Factor: The Non-Issues Issues

The following are all topics covered in the book: alcoholism, anorexia, abandonment, bullying, racism, terrorism, sex, horrible parenting, death, grief, soccer and reality television.  But none of them are handled like Capital-I Issues, and even those topics which comprise a good deal of the book, like, alcoholism, are discussed with realism, not shmaltz.

Bonus Factor: The Katniss Everdeen Award of Amazing Sisterness

You guys, I can't even.  I CAN'T EVEN.  Let's just say that Jasmine is the best sister in the whole world and you should hope to have her by your side if your parents turn into distant assholes or drunken infants.  And, like Katniss, she pretty much volunteers to be sacrificed in a violent sport to save Jamie.  Only that violent sport is called reality tv.  So, um, just like Katniss then.

Quasi-Questionable Factor: American Misunderstandings

Man, for the life of me I can't figure out how Jamie's family gets the money to afford their house in the Lake District.  Is Jamie's dad on the dole?  Is alcoholism considered a legitimate disease that a person could be signed off for?  (Maybe not, but I bet Jamie's dad could be signed off work for depression.)  Are they receiving aid?  And why the hell are they allowing all this talk about Jesus in schools?  Is this a publicly-funded parochial school?  Why is this happening?  If you want Jesus in your life, you gotta pay for it!  Or . . . go to school in tiny rural towns where no one makes a fuss when their kids come home talking about the Birth of Jesus, I guess  I don't know.  This is all too religious yet also liberal for me!  It's confusing me!  WHERE ARE THE TAXES AND THE BOOTSTRAPS?

Quasi-Questionable Factor: Worst. Parent. Ever.

This isn't really an anti-bonus factor, because Jamie's mom's absence forms a large part of the narrative.  But I just need to take this space to proclaim loudly that I HATE HER.  I HATE HER SO MUCH.  WHY COULDN'T SHE HAVE BEEN BLOWN UP BY A BOMB?  I don't mind that she runs off with someone from her support group, cause, hey, I wouldn't want to stay married to Jamie's dad either.  I don't even mind that she lives apart from her kids, because the lady lost a child and she's entitled to feel her feelings and all, but BEING SAD DOESN'T MEAN YOU GET TO ABANDON YOUR CHILDREN.  I don't know why I hate Jamie's mom so much more than Jamie's dad, who isn't exactly a stellar parent or, you know, even a semi-conscious parent, but I JUST DO.  I don't think it's a double-standard, either.  If she were a dude, I'd hate her just as much.  She just . . . she just doesn't even care.

Casting Call:

Asa Butterfield as Jamie Matthews

Slap some red dye on this kid and call it a day; Asa would make a perfect Jamie.

I have no idea who could play Sunya, though.  I tried googling "Bangladeshi child actors from the United Kingdom" and came back with some very questionable results.

Relationship Status: Until The Day My Body Leaves, I Will Regret That You Don't Breathe

Sorry for all the maudlin-but-not-really song lyric quoting, Book, but that's what you do to me!  You make me think in song!  You make me write your name over and over again on the cover of my Trapper Keeper.  My notes in Science and Social Studies are scribbled with likenesses of you, and I can't wait to introduce you to my friends and family. 

The only thing that would make you more perfect, book, is if you were actually real life, if I could live within your pages forever.  Not only would I get to hang out in the Lake District (holla!), but then I could take care of Jamie and Jasmine and draw superheroes with Sunya.  So, think about becoming corporeal, book.  There's a Spiderman shirt in it for you.

FTC Full Disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book to review from Little, Brown.  I received neither money nor cocktails for this review (damnit!).  My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece is available in stores now (buy it, buy it, buy it).

Erin Callahan's photo About the Author: Erin is loud, foul-mouthed, an unrepentant lover of trashy movies and believes that champagne should be an every day drink. When she isn't drowning in a sea of engineers for whom Dilbert is still uproariously funny, she's writing about books, tv, the cult of VC Andrews and more.
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