Besides having a charming cover (the paperback one is nowhere near as good as the trade paperback), My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece may be one of the best books of this year, an especially noteworthy achievement since it is ostensibly geared towards teens.
The story starts with the line ‘My sister lives on the mantlepiece’. From there we discover that the protagonist’s sister, Rose, was killed in a terrorist attack at the age of ten. Since then the family has become less than functional, with the mother leaving with a man from her support group and the father turning into an alcoholic. Rose’s twin Jasmine, and Jamie the protagonist, become secondary to the golden urn on the mantelpiece. The ashes get cake, balloons and presents while the living children feed and school themselves.
Jamie meets the wonderful Sunya, who styles herself as Girl M, her hijab flying in the wind as she saves Jamie from school bullies. Probably one of the most memorable characters I’ve come across this year, Sunya is part of the novel’s exploration of Islamophobia inEnglandand she really is as charming as she is brave and brilliant. Jamie, who is only ten and raised by his racist father to believe that all Muslims make bombs in their bedrooms only to blow up beautiful daughters, now has a Muslim girl who becomes his friend despite his best efforts to avoid her.
The subject material is remarkably heavy (alcoholism, abandonment, Islamophobia, bullying and eating disorders) but is dealt with so deftly and intelligently that I found it uplifting and absolutely heartbreaking at the same time. Jamie’s victimisation by teachers and bullies, Sunya’s ostracism, Jasmine’s desperate struggle to look after her little brother while also trying to separate herself from her dead sister’s ghost, all of it melds into the kind of novel that transcends misery memoir status by being honest and celebratory of the good things that still happen in spite of the bad.
I think this title is unfairly lost to the children’s market. I think it is as much an adult’s book, because no matter how old we get we still remember what it was like when the only person that listened was the cat. I love the dig at Simon Cowell in theBritain’s Got Talent Show, which Jamie and Jas enter in an attempt to get their parents back together. Some of the humour is so sharp and so dry that I think most kids will miss it. Definitely a gift for the teens in the family, but I think I’ll be keeping my copy to myself. If I lend it out, I know it won’t come back.
Like My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece, this title surprised me with the depths of its wisdom considering its guise as a book for pre-teens. I’m going to call these books ‘Sneaky Adult Favourites’.
August Pullman, or Auggie as he is called by his loved ones, was born with a facial deformity that causes kids to ask him if he was in a fire, or if he’s a zombie. A Star Wars fanatic, Auggie also spent two years wearing an astronaut helmet in an attempt to hide his face. At the suggestion of his parents, he decides to leave homeschooling and go to fifth grade. Supported by his remarkable family, the first half of the story is narrated through Auggie’s eyes. Worse than the intentional cruelty of some of the kids (like naming him the Plague and refusing to touch him) is the fake friendliness of some of the teachers and the students, with their ‘shiny’ smiles. The rudeness, Auggie knows and can try to ignore; it’s the false smiles and quick looks away that hurt as much. There’s no anger, just frustration that might be expected of any small boy when so few will be his friend. The reader is also treated to multiple narrators in their own sections, creating a wonderfully multi-faceted story.
The major theme of the novel is ‘be kinder than is necessary’, something that definitely should have pride of place in not just a children’s novel, but in any novel. I struggled to get into it initially, since I was expecting some emotional manipulation with ‘he is deformed, take pity, for shame!’ After all, the book arrived at the office with a packet of tissues attached. But it isn’t manipulative or woeful; just sweetly honest. There are all the castmembers of childhood; kind teachers, bullies, nerds, popular groups, jocks, mean girls. Auggie navigates them all, and gets a little help from his friends.
So often, books focus on cruelty and pain, and I would never be so trite to say that life does not deal vast amounts of unfairness on a daily basis to people who don’t deserve it. But it is something of a joy to read a book that celebrates the potential for kindness in everyone. I cried, I laughed, and I loved the characters in their development. I especially loved the line “I think that there should be a rule that everyone should get a standing ovation at least once” from Auggie. This is definitely going to be a hit with the parents that borrow this from their kids once lights are out.
Wonder will be available in March.
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