Lynne Reid Banks has written 40 books for children and adults. Her first novel, The L-Shaped Room, was published in 1960; and her classic children's novel The Indian in the Cupboard has sold over 10 million copies. Lynne's latest book for children is Bad Cat, Good Cat. Below she reviews Annabel Pitcher's My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece.
Lynne Reid Banks on My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher
Towards the end of this book for ten-year-olds, the narrator, Jamie, says: 'Having [your] cat killed is bad enough. Having a daughter blown to bits must be horrid.'
During the course of the story, we are subjected to the most overheated descriptions of this child's feelings - about his mother's decampment, about his new girlfriend at school, about his participation in a talent show, his troubles with the school bully, the loss of his cat - about everything except his sister's death. This makes such a weak and flaccid word as 'horrid' hardly appropriate to describe his much-delayed understanding of his father's reaction to his daughter being blown up by a terrorist bomb before his eyes (and also before Jamie's eyes, if I understood correctly).
I think this is bad writing.
In fact, I didn't believe in Jamie for more than five minutes at a time, while reading his story. Ten-year-old boys don't write, talk or think like this. Nor do they tend to fall passionately in love when they're ten, or get themselves worked into a state bordering on hysteria when their absent mother apparently sends them a Spider Man T-shirt for their birthday, yet hardly register seeing a sister blown to bits. But that's not my main objection to the book.
Much is written today about the sexualization of children. Committees are appointed to pronounce on the problem. Yes, of course, padded bras for five-year-olds and bombardment by sexy images isn't so good. But I'm much more worried about the frightenization of children. The shock-horrorization. Isn't it much worse to fill children's minds with awful images, engendering fear and disgust, than with sexual ones? Do we not risk desensitizing them when their budding, fertile imaginations shut down rather than process such events and ideas? But nobody is making a fuss about the graphic horrors, not to mention the devastating grownup 'issues', that children's writers are dishing out to even very young kids these days.
I say nothing about wurgly things bursting out of graves or arriving from outer space. Vampires and werewolves are apparently attractive, but they hardly give kids nightmares. Kids know the difference early between what can and can't happen. I'm talking realism here. I remember when there was a to-do about Judy Blume writing about young love, Jacqueline Wilson writing about dysfunctional mothers, Anne Fine writing about step-parents, or Melvin Burgess writing (revoltingly) about drugs. These all seem relatively tame by comparison with what is pushing the envelope in children's writing these days, and this book, which is collaring five-star reviews online and a paean of approval in at least my newspaper, represents to me the outer limit so far of callousness in thrusting children's noses into the danger, beastliness and violence of today's world.
Rose, Jamie's sister and Jas's twin, was feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square on (believe it or not) September 9th, five years ago, when she opened a rubbish bin and – bang. Next moment she was nothing but bits of flesh and bone. This episode is described entirely dispassionately, unlike every other thing that happens to Jamie in the course of the story. Mum wants Rose's bits buried, so she can have a grave to visit. Dad wants them cremated so he can keep her ashes in an urn. So they divi Rose up. The actual bits that each of them gets is named – a finger here, an ear there.
At the risk of being called a fuddy-duddy and right out of step, I must say I think this is way too horrifying for ten-year-olds, no matter how laconically described. In fact, describing it matter-of-factly makes it all the more damaging by robbing it of its true horror.
The tragedy breaks up the marriage. So then we have the lot: an absconding, affair-having mum who doesn't remember birthdays, and a dad who is so fixated on Rose on the mantelpiece that he totally neglects his surviving children, drinks, loses his job, and would soon surely have had social services knocking on his door.
We also have a severe case of racism, because Dad now regards all Muslims as terrorists. So of course it's inevitable that Jamie will fall for a little girl in a hijab at school. And what a girl she is! If I had trouble believing in Jamie, Sunya is absolutely incredible. I may be wrong about Muslim families but I have the impression they are not the most laid-back parents of young girls. This one has complete freedom to roam the streets and stay out late and get up to all kinds of tricks. (Her family has a dog, which I don't think Muslims tend to do.) In the end she takes her headscarf off and shows Jamie her hair in a scene so sensual I felt decidedly uncomfortable. But I didn't believe she'd do it.
Just about the only scene in the whole book that I did believe in was the one where Dad, roused for once from his alcoholic stupor, makes it to parents' evening and there is confronted by his son's girlfriend and her 'terrorist' parents. His fury and despair are entirely credible and well described, as is Jamie's dismay.
But the rest of the story is simply not credible, and because of that - and the over-the-top writing - it's not moving either, which, by God, it should be. The relationship between Jamie and his surviving sister might provide a balance, if it weren't for lines like this - the last in the book, leaving a very strange taste: 'Get out of my room, you sickly little bastard'. This is meant lovingly, I think.
But as Mammy, that fount of fundamental good sense and propriety, memorably said in Gone with the Wind, It ain't fittin'. It just ain't fittin'.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]