I have been intrigued by the premise of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece since I first heard it – the ashes of Jamie’s sister Rose, who died in a terrorist attack in London, sit in an urn on the mantelpiece and have for the past five years. I’ve been meaning to pick it up for a few months now, but hadn’t been able to track it down in a bookstore until just recently. If I had known David Tennant, or, Doctor Who, had written a blurb on the back of the book to say, “I couldn’t put it down,” I might have tried a bit harder to find it then I did. Also, if I had known author Annabel Pitcher worked on the British soap opera Coronation Street, I probably would have ordered this straight from Amazon the second that I heard about it.
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is told with an immediacy that is in fitting with its ten-year-old protagonist. Jamie is as likeable as he is perceptive, and the way he cobbles together a picture of his damaged and grieving family through snapshots of their present life fits perfectly with the subject matter. Jamie opens the book by telling the reader, “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. That’s what Jasmine told me, anyway. She remembers more than I do.” Jamie’s sister Jasmine is five years older than he is, and more notably, she was Rose’s twin. There is a striking moment at the beginning of the novel when Jasmine shows up with her hair dyed pink and cut off and wearing a brand new style of wardrobe. Her parents are devastated because she no longer gives off the impression of how Rose could have looked were she still alive.
Jamie keeps the story rooted in the real and the now, and even though he is dealing with the aftereffects of Rose’s horrific death and his father’s rampant racism, there are many everyday, touching, and humorous moments that keep this book launched heavily towards a middle school or young adult reader.
When the story begins, Jamie and Jasmine are relocating from London to Ambleside with their father. Jamie describes Ambleside as completely opposite to London: “It’s so different here. There are massive mountains that are tall enough to poke God up the bum, hundreds of trees, and it’s quiet.” Their mother has just left them for Nigel, the man that she met at her support group. Their father relies heavily on drinking and lying around the house all day, and so Jas has taken over taking care of Jamie, even though she’s still a teenager herself.
Rose haunts the lives of her family in every way. There are boxes moved to the basement of the house in Ambleside marked “Sacred,” all of them full of Rose’s clothes, her life arrested at the age of ten. The urn sits on the mantelpiece. Jas constantly feels the absence of her twin. Jamie, who was only five when Rosie was killed, has a different response to grief and recovery. He can’t remember her, hardly anything at all. He says,
One day for homework I had to describe someone special and I spent fifteen minutes writing a whole page on my favorite soccer player. Mum made me rip it up and write about Rose instead. I had nothing to say so Mum sat opposite me with her face all red and wet and told me exactly what to write. She smiled this teary smile and said When you were born, Rose pointed at your willy and asked if it was a worm and I said I’m not putting that in my English paper. Mum’s smile disappeared. Tears dripped off her nose onto her chin and that made me feel bad so I wrote it down. A few days later, the teacher read my homework out loud in class and I got a gold star from her and teased by everyone else. Maggot Dick, they called me.
The dialogue is related through italics that slip right into the descriptive text, the two running together in a semi-stream-of-conscious style. It is a leisurely but deliberate read about one family’s coming to terms with the loss of Rose, and how it takes more than years to come to terms with grief.