8 May 2012
Review 31: The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce
This is a lovely, charming and quirky story of family and friendship. Cottrell Boyce also weaves in serious themes of refugees and self which lend the book a melancholy touch at times. The beautiful printing on exercise book notepaper with photographs means the entire book is a entirely enjoyable experience. The story was inspired by a true story, when the author visited a school that had a Mongolian little girl who was taken by Immigration Services with her family and never seen again.
First Line: 'I hadn't seen this photograph since the day it was taken, until now.'
Why I read it: I bought it for my library stock and couldn't resist the cover and the wonderful photos inside.
The Unforgotten Coat is the story of Julie, a normal Year 6 schoolgirl who befriends two Mongolian boys new to her school, Chingis and Nergui when they ask her to be their 'Good Guide' to help them work out what to do and say in England. Julie is happy to help as she wants the opportunity to be meaningful and important to people and in a series on bizarre situations as she tries to help them negotiate their way through school. That feeling of children wanting to find their way to be important really rang true for me, the children I work with are always keen to prove their responsibility and eager to find a role that is worthwhile. The story is actually told from the perspective of Julie as an adult, and a mother, as she reflects back on the time that Chingis and Nergui spent at her school and this lends a melancholic tone to the story but also a lovely, hopeful ending.The other moment that really rang true to me was when Chingis is telling Julie about his life in Mongolia and Julie says,
'And in that moment, I felt my own ignorance spread suddenly out behind me like a pair of wings, and every single thing I didn't know was a feather on those wings. I could feel them tugging at the air, restless to be airborne.'
I loved these sentences so much, that feeling of being aware of what you don't know must be familiar to most readers, and most people, and it's described in such as way that gets across the vastness of what you don't know hitting you but also in such a positive way, the way that Julie feels inspired to find it all out.
As well as showing Julie photos of Mongolia, which are including in the book, and telling her about his familys life there, Chingis also tells Julie about the demon he believes is trying to find his family and who is the reason his family move from one council flat to another trying to outwit the demon. When the boys go to Julie's for tea, Julie's mother is unnerved by their insistence on making a pastry figure to leave on the doorstep to try and deceive the demon. When one of their furry Mongolian coats is left behind at school, Julie and her mother try to take it back but the boys' mother is too frightened to open the door to them and the next day Chingis and Nergui are missing from school and Julie sets out to try and find them based on what they have already told her.
Chingis is a brilliant character, we think he is simple and adorably foreign but he surprises us and Julie with occasional words of wisdom such as this,
'"Know the best way to hide a needle in a haystack?"
"I don't think there is a best way. Once the needle is in the haystack, it's really hard to find. I think that's the point, really."
"The best way to hide a needle in a haystack is to disguise the needle as a piece of hay."'
Cottrell Boyce is a wonderful writer who can write lovely, easy to read stories such as this that have beautiful writing and characters and depths and emotions that can surprise you. I would highly recommend this, and Cottrell Boyce's other work, for a short read full of humour, heartbreak and moments of universal human experience.