Set in Jamaica, Kereen Getten’s charming debut novel follows hot-headed Clara as she negotiates friendships, frustrations and a lost summer: ‘I remember that my name is Clara Dee-Henson, and I remember I am twelve years old. I know I live on a small island that tourists call exotic. I know I used to love surfing every morning while Papa went fishing, but I don’t do that any more. Something happened that made me forget everything that happened last summer.‘ A girl from England called Rudy arrives, and she proves to be a catalyst for change.
The reader is immediately drawn into Clara’s world where island life is shown in detail, and the other characters are given depth. ‘Papa’s tall, thin figure makes a shadow on the wall of the house, and his twisted hair falls just below his ears. Mama can never get him to sit down long enough to do those twists, so sometimes she’ll do it while he is sleeping’ Or of her Mama ‘She stops and turns, a box of fruit balanced on her head. Her long braids pulled into a high bun make a nook for the fruit. She looks back at me expectantly.’ Just as the descriptions of life in Jamaica feel authentic, so references to its colonial past are also light-touch but not left out: Of a fort, Clara says ‘It was built hundreds of years ago, when England ruled our island and they didn’t want anyone else to have it.’
As to how the story develops, I don’t want to give any spoilers; I will simply say that it is so well crafted that the reader is set up for a surprise and it is not a superficial trick. It goes to the central theme of the story and invites us to go back into the novel to reassess how events were perceived.
When Life Gives You Mangoes will work well as a class novel from Y4 to Y6. There is plenty of material for rich discussions about Jamaican island life as well as the themes of friendship and loss. It would also be an excellent addition to a school library, and readers could compare the child’s viewpoint in Floella Benjamin’s Coming To England, where she leaves Trinidad, with this contemporary perspective on island life in the Caribbean. Lots of opportunities for children to see and understand other realities reflected in new MG fiction.
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