‘I don’t understand. You’re not real; you’re imaginary. You’re in my head but I can’t make you go away. Why won’t you go away?’
Sam leaned towards me. The yellow of his t-shirt made a warm, buttercup glow under his chin.
‘I’m here because you want me to be, Nate. Isn’t that fantastic?’
(The Light Jar by Lisa Thompson. P61.) Synopsis:
Nate and his Mum leave their home in the middle of the night, to escape Gary. They head to a cottage they visited when Nate was small. It belonged to a gardner called William and it sits on the edge of a big estate. Now William is dead, it is the perfect place for Nate and his Mum to hide.
Except Mum goes missing, leaving Nate on his own. Well … not quite on his own. Old imaginary friend Sam returns to cheer Nate on as he works out what to do. There is also Kitty, the strange girl from the estate. Kitty is obsessed with solving a treasure hunt set by William decades ago. A treasure hunt which ended in tragedy, and was never solved.
Can Nate help to work out the clues? Will he find Mum, or has she gone back to Gary? A fantastic Middle Grade novel about fear, friends and emotional abuse.
I sat up until 1am reading The Light Jar. Once I’d started it was impossible to stop. It is an addictive mystery and a lyrical story rolled into one, and is expecptionally well written.
The child’s voice is spot-on. Nate grasps some parts of his situation, but overlooks others. For example, he doesn’t understand why Grandma was mean to Mum last time they met, or why they aren’t going to Grandma’s anyway. He is as bewildered by the dirty cottage as he is by Gary’s behaviour. On top of this, Nate has his own landscape of books and gadgets and interests. The result is that we can guess his age within a couple of years without knowing anything about the book.
The story of Mum and Gary’s relationship is sandwiched between other story lines. This means only so much is shown, and none of the detail is overwhelming for a young audience. My favourite part of the emotional abuse theme is how every single character is shown having an angry moment, or a moment where the say something hurtful. In every situation, the characters act because of their feelings or because of the way someone behaves. Every single person has moments they regret, and that is shown as normal. I loved the comparison to Gary, who often speaks in an apparently reasonable and kind voice, but controls other people’s reactions. This is an important message which needs to be heard.
The mystery is fantastic. Enough information is given ahead of the clue that young readers might work it out themselves. This gives the reader satisfaction whether they are right or wrong. I don’t know a single reader who doesn’t love the feeling it-was-there-all-along. I love the setting, and the way Nate learns the old house like a puzzle.
Imaginary friend Sam is a joy. Anybody who liked The Imaginaries will love this world where imaginary friends linger on after they are needed. It was a clever way of showing how Nate processed his situation, and how children revert to younger behaviours when they are stressed or frightened. The theme of fear runs through the book, with Nate’s light-jar symbolising hope and comfort.
Some reviewers have described this as an ‘easy’ read, but to me this only describes the length of the story. It is a short read with a huge depth, and it is an achievement in contemporary children’s fiction.
Thank you Scholastic UK for my lovely prize. Opinions my own.