Book review: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

It was ‘The Day Our Life fell Apart’ – the tragic moment a teenager carrying a gun shot dead Caitlin Smith’s beloved older brother Devon in a terrifying high school massacre.

By Pam Norfolk
Friday, 6th January 2012, 6:00 am

Getting to grips with her loss will be difficult for Caitlin, not least because as an Asperger’s sufferer the 10-year-old doesn’t do messy ‘emotions.’

If she is ever to cope with Devon’s death and the devastating grief of her widower father, she will have to discover the true meaning of that bewildering but magical word ‘closure’...

Mockingbird, a straight-talking, haunting and yet ultimately uplifting young adult novel from US author Kathryn Erskine, reaches out to the deepest corners of hearts in danger of being hardened by horrific real-life events.

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Funny, sad, moving and self-consciously sophisticated despite its heartbreakingly naïve narrator, Erskine’s powerful book helps us to witness the workings of our strange and sometimes cruel world through the innocent and unblinking eye of a special needs child.

Like other youngsters with Asperger’s Syndrome, Caitlin sees life through a black and white spectrum, a comfortingly confined area where words and events are taken literally, where the only friend you have is yourself and where incomprehensible rules must be slavishly followed.

But when 13-year-old Devon, the one person who has been the bridge between Caitlin’s ‘personal space’ and the real world, is taken away in a random act of violence then her controlled confusion quickly turns to isolation.

The deaths of Devon and two others at the school plunge Caitlin’s whole community into mourning and the girl is left to try to make sense of the world without her older brother.

Her dad spends most of his time crying in the shower, school days are becoming increasingly difficult and her counsellor is urging her to study her ‘Facial Expression Chart’ and work on something called ‘empathy.’

The girl’s search for ‘feelings’ and ‘friendship’ leads to moments of unintentional amusement ... ‘We need to work hard on making friends,’ says counsellor Mrs Brooks. ‘Why? Don’t you have any?’ replies Caitlin.

After hearing a TV reporter rejoicing in ‘closure’ for the community when one of the killers is pictured outside the court, Caitlin determines to discover the meaning of the word and put it into action.

Perhaps then, she and her dad will finally be able to put their lives back together again...

Caitlin’s long and sometimes painful journey to some kind of understanding is exquisitely and lovingly crafted by Erskine who has a family member with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Her focus is very much on the impact of the terrible event on Caitlin and those around her ... the child’s family, other schoolchildren, the cousin of one of the killers and the young son of another victim.

Using Caitlin as the narrator is an inspired choice as we are given a rare insight into how an Asperger’s child views both ourselves and the world around us.

There’s a message within these pages for all of us ... young or old.

(Usborne, paperback, £6.99)