By Maureen Tai, 17 November 2017
“You can do most things in Sunday school, like colouring and singing and dressing up, as long as you don’t dress up as Jesus on the cross, because Graham Roberts did that once, just in his pants, and Mrs Constantine didn’t like it.” – Anna
Anna is the nine-year old through whose eyes we relive her eventful summer holidays.
She lives in an unspecified English village with her mum, dad, Nanna and little brother Tom. Next door lives her friend Suzanne with whom she exchanges not-so-secret knocks on the wall, their signal to meet on the window ledge to peer at the stars.
Anna and Tom go to Sunday school while their mum attends the church service, and their dad (an atheist) drinks beer and watches football. She has a pet called New Cat, who was most likely a feral tiger in his former life. Her neighbours are Joe-down-the-road, a sensitive boy attuned to the suffering of his pets; Mr. Tucker, an eccentric war vet with an all-consuming dislike of litter; and Mrs. Rotherham, a kindly ex-policewoman who helps the children investigate the mystery of The Great Hamster Massacre. This main event – which is grisly – actually happens about three quarters of the way into the book. By then, the pages are already littered with deaths of other creatures great and small. When the massacre happens however, there is some relief at the thought that surely, no one else will die after this?
Anna is extremely likeable, not because she comes across as being wonderfully kind or heroic or blessed with exceptional abilities, but because she is such a trustworthy observer and narrator. She will honestly tell you what she doesn’t understand. She will confidently assure you of what she believes in, such as that immaculate conceptions don’t happen to humans (except the Virgin Mary), let alone hamsters. Anna is utterly believable. She is the 5th grader who is sitting next to you in the car. She is the nine-year old you once were.
It also helps that Anna’s matter-of-fact observations are alternately so comical as to induce a fit of The Hysterics (a condition described in the book) and so heartbreaking as to make your voice catch in your throat when you are reading aloud. At the end, you’re left with the feeling of a summer too brief, but yet full, of having learnt something momentous but the meaning of which you will likely only grasp long after the summer has gone.
For ages 8 and up.