My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher deals with the aftermath of a terrorist attack. When Rose is blown up in Trafalgar Square during a terrorist bomb blast the rest of her family survive physically but, emotionally, the blast blows then apart too.
Told from the point of view of ten year old Jamie, we meet the family 71 days after Mum has left them for a man from the bereavement support group. Dad is falling apart drinking, sleeping and failing to participate in family life. His sister Jas, Rosie's twin, is struggling to find her own identity out of the shadow of her murdered other half. These are serious topics, in an engrossing storyline, and Pitcher handles them beautifully.
The family, minus mum, move to the Lake District as Jamie's father wants to get away from the immigrants he blames for the (presumed Islamist) bomb. Jamie struggles with no proper parenting except from Jas, he struggles to fit in at his school, and he misses his mother. Meanwhile his sister's ashes are on the mantelpiece, unscattered, a sign his father just can't let go.
I found this an extremely readable book, with excellent characterisation and lots of flashes of humour in and amongst the tragedy. The extremely difficult subject matter is handled with real sensitivity, and should be okay, with caution and a bit of adult support, for most children in our age group.
In handling the drinking, the divorce, the teenage Jas's romance and rebellion, the grief, and the terrorist attack, Pitcher shows a remarkable ability to talk straight, and not down, to her young audience. At odds with this is the friendship between a muslim girl and Jamie at his new school. Pitcher is trying to show hope for the future in the positive relationship, but somehow she suddenly sounds like a teacher. Sunya is a great character, she truly sparkles, and deserves her own story, not to be tagged onto Jamie's for diversity training. Pitcher's heart is in the right place with this aspect of the plot but it doesn't work. In the end the narrative gets a bit worthy, and disbelief is suspended.
All that said, there is much for discussion in the book with your gifted reader both in literary and social terms. It is well written, engaging, and a range of social problems and differences are handled with understanding and empathy, not just of the characters and events, but also of the young readers who will engage with it. Highly recommended but do read it first!
Death: a child is killed, blown apart, by a terrorist bomb, only parts of the body are found and the warring parents split them. The father's half of the child's ashes remain on the mantelpiece and are a key part of the book. There are descriptions of ashes scattered (and failing to scatter). A cat also dies.
Peril: in the past is the bomb which happened on an ordinary shopping trip. There is also bullying in the present.
Relationships: we see something of Jas's relationship with her boyfriend. There is some slight scrutiny of the parents' relationship and the disintegrating marriage, though this is largely from Jamie's point of view.
Racism: Jamie's Dad has become very racist as a result of the bombing. There are a lot of things said and shouted which, whilst realistic, may need discussion.
Anything else? This is a socially complex book that deals with many problems, including grief, divorce, drunkenness, alcoholism, and abandonment by parents. Jas's story within the book is an interesting one of sibling identity as well as body piercing, eating problems, and teenage rebellion. There is also an interesting running thread on the subject of hair covering for muslim women.
Other reviews and useful websites:
Some editions have the short story 'Jasmine' appended, and this is well worth having. ISBN 9781780620299.
Video trailer for the novel can be viewed here.
There is also an excellent review, particularly focusing on the grief of children, by Lynne Hatwell on her Dovegreyreader blog, with an extract from the audio book read by David Tennant.