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Thursday, April 4, 2013

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, written by Annabel Pilcher.Little Brown and Company, Hachette. 2011. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. 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 in the sea."

You have to admit that Jamie got your attention with that observation, did he not? He and his family are still trying to come to grips with his sister Rose's death five years ago in a terrorist bombing in London. Being only five at the time, Jamie remembers little of what happened. Like the rest of his family - Rose's twin Jasmine, his mother, and his father - Jamie is dealing with the repercussions of such a tragic event and how it has impacted the family dynamic.

Jamie's dad has found comfort in alcohol, the oblivion of its effects and an ongoing dedication to his daughter's memory. His mom is living in London with a man from her support group. The rest of the family has moved to the Lake District to get away from the memories. Dad has promised a better life.  But, Dad is overwhelmed by grief, hatred and a longing to have his daughter back. He cannot care for his children. Mom walked out on Jas's  fifteenth birthday before the cake was cut and is out of the picture completely it seems. They hear little from her.

Jas has a new boyfriend and is finding a new self, without her beloved twin sister. Jamie is alone, and confused and hanging on to the belief that his mother will come back to them...if only he wishes it so. At school it is no better. He's the new kid and picked as a target to be bullied and even beaten. His saving grace is his new friend there whose eyes sparkle, whose laughter is infectious and who makes each of his days better most of the time. Her name is Sunya and she is Muslim. That is a huge problem as his father blames all Muslims for Rose's death.

It sounds so depressing and I will admit that it was hard to read at times. There are also great moments of brilliance and humor, of great strength and understanding. The author creates a first person narrator who is honest and real. Jamie's loneliness and confusion are palpable and painful. He can't cry over Rose as he can't remember enough about her. He doesn't know how to resolve his feelings for Sunya while faced with his dad's hateful treatment of all Muslims. He keeps making excuses for his mother when she deserves none. He and Jas never speak openly about their father's drinking or his inability to parent.

It's hard not to have sympathy for parents who are dealing with a brutal and senseless murder. Neither can come to terms with the fallout, and cannot support the other as their world falls apart. But, and it's a big but, there are two other children. Who's going to give them the guidance and support needed to recover? It is a long and agonizing process. The fact that the author handles the telling with such compassion and love for Jamie is what makes it a memorable and worthwhile read.

This is an inspiring first novel. There is kindness, humor, truth, and resilience. It is ultimately uplifting in so many ways.

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