That's Life, Lily by Valerie Dayre

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That's Life, Lily by Valerie Dayre

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A sophisticated novel for younger readers that asks them to confront their fear of abandonment and negative feelings towards their parents. It's wonderful and slightly surreal stuff with great power.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 144 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Faber
ISBN: 0571237975

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It's a hot summer and Lily and her family are setting off on holiday. Things don't get off to a great start. The motorway is crowded, traffic is barely crawling along, the air-conditioning in the car is broken and to top it all, Lily's father drives into the back of the car in front, sparking off a row between the two drivers and another between her father and her mother. Lily sits in the back of the car, scribbling in her notebook. She's sick of it all and she's in one of those phases where she feels like a cuckoo in the nest. Her parents are irritating the life out of her and she's not even sure if they even want her around.

So, when they arrive at the motorway services for a break and Mama and Papa drive off without her, Lily isn't overly concerned. She makes friends with a similarly abandoned dog and sets about working out how a child fends for itself in a mini-town on a bridge suspended over a motorway...

... or does she?

Considered a classic in its native France, That's Life, Lily provides children with probably their first example of an unreliable narrator. It's a controversial choice - even more so this side of the Channel, where I think we often underestimate what our children are capable of reading and are even more unwilling to allow them to explore their darker feelings and emotions through fiction. As they read, children can't be sure whether or Lily's parents have really driven off without her. Later on, when they realise they haven't, and it's all been a story in Lily's notebook, they then can't be sure whether or not her parents do leave her behind as a punishment for writing such dreadful things about them.

Of course, it's all about a child's fear of abandonment and about the inevitable judgements they make about their parents as they grow older and are more and more capable of independent thought. Do you remember the first time you disapproved of something your parents said or did? It's quite a difficult moment - coping with a hitherto omnipotent mother or father's abrupt descent into fallibility. And it often makes children think quite outrageous and negative things. They fantasise about their parents dying, or having been adopted, or fending for themselves free of parental control, and it's all perfectly normal. Yet too often it's taboo, never mentioned. This, I think, is such a bad thing because the child with these thoughts is still a child. They need cuddles and reassurance just as much as ever; just like Lily does.

That's Life, Lily engages with these feelings head on. And it doesn't forget the cuddles. It's been described as violent, and its assault on deeply buried feelings is indeed full-on. It doesn't pull its punches. But that's what fiction is, particularly for children - it's a way to test thoughts, feelings and value vicariously. Through Lily, the unreliable narrator, children can explore this period in their lives in safety, and its slightly surreal elements - the talking dog, for example - give it enough distance from real life to stop it being scary.

It's a sophisticated read for younger ones, and one you might like to talk about afterwards, but it's highly recommended by Bookbag.

My thanks to the nice people at Faber for sending the book.

If they enjoyed the uncertainty in That's Life, Lily, they might also like to test the unreliable narration in The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett.

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Buy That's Life, Lily by Valerie Dayre at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy That's Life, Lily by Valerie Dayre at


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