A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill

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Published by Piccadilly Press, 2016.

I read A Library of Lemons in almost one sitting and pretty much cried from start to finish. It’s a beautiful story about grief, love, family and friendship. Two of its themes, in particular, really struck a chord with me: the love between mother and child, and the power of books and reading. I found that I really related to this book and I was alternately nodding and weeping in recognition of the different sentiments that are so beautifully and truthfully expressed.

The story is about Calypso, a solitary book-loving 10-and-a-half-year-old, and her academic father. Five years ago, Calypso’s mother died of cancer and so Calypso lives alone with her father who, since the death of his wife, has become emotionally and physically distant. He has suppressed his emotions and has encouraged Calypso to do the same. He has taught her to draw upon her inner strength which, in reality, means that Calypso is expected to ignore her feelings. He spends all day shut in his library working on his “magnum opus”, a book about the history of the lemon. He has not dealt with his grief and neither has he allowed Calypso to deal with hers. He has not been able to provide his daughter with the parental love and support that she needs.

Much to her surprise, Calypso is befriended by Mae – a new girl at school. They bond over their love of books, thrilled that they have such a shared history in terms of the books that they’ve read, and eagerly recommend new titles to each other. Where Calypso is reserved, Mae is expressive; sad books always make her cry. Soon Calypso and Mae are inseparable best friends.

The contrast between the two girls’ family homes is carefully drawn. Calypso’s home is silent, Mae’s is noisy. Calypso’s home is cold, Mae’s is warm (for both houses this is true in a literal and metaphorical sense). Calypso loves being at Mae’s house and spends more and more time there. Through friendship and love, Mae and her mother show Calypso that it’s ok to cry. They teach her that she doesn’t have to be strong at the expense of her feelings and wellbeing. Their love and support give her strength.

I step forward too, and then I am enveloped in warmth and security and strength, and the tears stream even faster because it’s almost like I’m borrowing a mother, just for a few moments. Something deep inside me bursts and my knees buckle, but Mae’s mum holds me up. (Pages 80-81.)

There are some really powerful, intensely emotional domestic scenes in the book. The scene where Calypso uncovers the truth of her father’s library will stay with me for a long time. I felt that I was there in the room with Calypso and her father. Other scenes don’t involve confrontation or drama but pack a powerful emotional punch all the same. The description of Calypso reading one of the books that belonged to her mother is deeply touching and evokes the power of books and reading:

I turn the pages, holding my breath. Her eyes followed these same words. The story flowed into her mind, just as it now flows into mine. Through this book, we are connected. And there she is again, in my mind’s eye, smiling in the sunshine. Books give you more than stories. Books can give you back people you’ve lost. (Pages 196-197.)

As well as the broader themes of grief and loss, love and friendship, A Library of Lemons also sensitively explores what it means to be a young carer. It’s a wonderful book for building empathy.

I cannot recommend A Library of Lemons highly enough. It speaks of the most important things in life.

Rating: 💙💙💙💙💙

I borrowed this book from Solihull Libraries.

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