They say that you fall in love when you least expect it. Search through lonely hearts ads, attend speed dating events in swanky gastropubs with backlit bars, or even just fork out £25 to bump and grind on a dance floor in your local trendy nightclub. All these aim-in-mind, looking-for-the-one activities are contrived and rarely result in success. You just don't know when it'll happen to you.
It's the same, albeit less dramatic, with books. Now, I knew this book was going to have some merit. It's on the Carnegie shortlist, so you know it's going to have been through some quality control. But I really did not expect to love this book as much as I did. It's the sort of book that, as a writer, makes you think about packing up and going home. And I wouldn't even consider myself to be Annabel Pitcher's direct competition. It's that good.
As you might have guessed, the sister in the title is dead, her ashes still remain in an urn five years on from her death at the hands of Muslim extremists. Narrator Jamie is almost like a ten year old Meursault: he's the only one of his family who didn't cry, reasoning that he was too young to remember Rose, his dead sister, when she 'passed on'. His dad has become a bitter drunk, unapologetically Islamaphobic and raw at the fact Jamie's mother has left him for another man. Jamie's only stability come from his kind but spirited sister Jasmine and a girl called Sunya, the only one who tries to make him feel welcome at his new school and shield him from the class bullies. The fact that Sunya is a Muslim complicates things a little...
The burgeoning friendship between Jamie and Sunya is the emotional core of the story. Pitcher gets inside a ten year old boy's head so well that you smile when the two play together, and hurt inside when they fall out. The relationship between Jamie and Jasmine is touching and believable too, as she nobly takes on the role of both mother and father to her little brother, checking up on his homework and going to his football matches. Without wanting to give too much away, Pitcher skilfully puts Jamie through an emotional equivalent of Hell (the moment he sees his mother for the first time in ages is especially traumatic) but doesn't get all Dickensian and drown us in weepy sentimentality. The fact that endearingly oddball Jamie remains stoically grounded throughout is the key do this. So when things reach an emotional climax, the emotional catharsis in the last two chapters, which end things on a poignant but uplifting note, are just reward for him indeed.
My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece is a wonderful book. A rare treat to be enjoyed by younger kids, teenagers and adults alike. Its emotional honesty, flashes of humour and refusal to make Jamie sickeningly cute are its trump cards. Flaws that could have made it a busted flush are almost impossible to see. This is a book to savour and wallow in like a hot bath.