Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Un-forgotten coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

I am usually very careful not to read similar books back to back.  This is one of the techniques I have that helps me remember plots of the books I have read so that I can talk to my students and staff often years and years after I have originally read a particular book.  Yesterday I made a mistake.  I read Precious and the mystery of Meerkat Hill followed by The Unforgotten coat.  Both books are about the arrival of new students in a school and about how one girl becomes their friends and in turn makes discoveries about the lives of the new students.

Setting is one big difference. Precious and the mystery of Meerkat Hill is firmly set in Botswana in Africa while the Unforgotten coat takes place in Liverpool in England.  Chingis and his brother Nergui have arrived from Mongolia.  Their clothes are strange and they are determined to stay together even though Nergui should be in a class for younger children.  The teacher Mrs Spendlove (yes you should think about this name) seems powerless to intervene.  The narrator, Julie, becomes a Good Guide for the brothers as they navigate life in their new country all documented with the help of a Polaroid camera.

This book set out as a journal and it is a joy to read.  There are moments of laughter, tension and many school scenes you will recognise.

I enjoyed an early scene when Chingis says Nergui cannot take off his hat because the hood is calming - he is an eagle who might go insane and kill someone.

"Year Six.  We had been at school for six years and until that moment I thought I had probably learned all I would ever need to learn.  I knew how to work out the volume of a cube. I knew who had painted the "Sunflowers". I could tell you the history of St Lucia. I knew about the Tudors and lines of symmetry and the importance of eating five portions of fruit a day.  But in all that time I had not had a single lesson in eagle-calming.  I had never even heard the subject mentioned. I''d had no idea that a person might need eagle-calming skills."

Frank Cottrell Boyce is a master story teller.  We have his books Millions and Framed.  This is a much shorter book but that is part of the wonder of the writing that as a reader you are left to think for yourself about these children, their lives, the past and their possible future.  Not everything is spelt out for you here - you have to connect the dots for yourself.

You can read a little more of the plot here.  Here is a detailed review.

The book is great. No question. But it’s the Afterword that deserves just as much attention. In it the reader learns where Boyce got the inspiration for this story. Turns out, during the very first school visit Mr. Boyce ever did, he sat with a group of kids that included a Mongolian girl by the name of Misheel. Then one day the Immigration Authorities took her away in the night and Boyce was left with the image of Misheel’s abandoned coat. He wanted to make a documentary with the kids of going to Mongolia to return the coat but that fell through. So it was he wrote this story instead with new characters and, at its core, an abandoned coat. Again.

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