Hello everybody. Today’s post is a spoiler free review of Kereen Getten’s Middle Grade novel When Life Gives You Mangoes, followed by an interview with the author. This post is also part of a book tour organized by Pushkin Press.
Nothing much happens in Sycamore, the small village where Clara lives – at least, that’s how it looks. She loves eating ripe mangoes fallen from trees, running outside in the rainy season and escaping to her secret hideout with her best friend Gaynah. There’s only one problem – she can’t remember anything that happened last summer. When a quirky girl called Rudy arrives from England, everything starts to change. Gaynah stops acting like a best friend, while Rudy and Clara roam across the island and uncover an old family secret. As the summer reaches its peak and the island storms begin, Clara’s memory starts to return and she must finally face the truth of what happened last year.
My review of When Life Gives You Mangoes
Characters and relationships
Clara is a very compelling main character and I loved that the story is told from her perspective. Clara is going through a lot. Not only has she been suffering from memory loss since the previous year, but she’s also feeling lonely and left out by her best friend. The book does an amazing job at exploring those different things and offers a very realistic depiction of childhood friendship, including both the heartwarming aspects of it, as well as the heartbreaking falling outs. The book also focuses a lot on family, as well as themes of community, which I also enjoyed.
The story is set in Jamaica and I absolutely loved the descriptions of Sycamore, the village where Clara and her family live. As an island girl myself (Mauritius), I loved the descriptions of the island, including the beautiful nature, the fruit trees, the sea and the community aspect of Sycamore. The writing is vividly descriptive and it was very easy to picture everything that was being described to us.
Plot and intrigue
I won’t say too much about the plot because I do think it’s best to go into the story without knowing too much. What I will say though is that the book has a very interesting plot, with at its heart a very well crafted intrigue. Throughout the story, we get clues as to what really happened to Clara a year ago and as Clara slowly begins to put things together, so does the reader. And let me tell you, you will not be disappointed! The reveals really pack a punch in this book and if you like stories with a bit of a mystery aspect to them, you will definitely really enjoy this book.
My final thoughts
Overall, When Life Gives You Mangoes is a beautifully crafted story that explores themes of family, community and grief, while also looking at the complexities of childhood. With a fascinating main character, a beautiful tropical setting and a plot full of intrigue, this book is one that I cannot recommend enough.
Interview with Kereen Getten
QaS: When Life Gives You Mangoes is a book told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old girl called Clara. How did you find the experience of telling a story from the point of view of a child? In what ways was it challenging, and what did you find the most interesting about it?
KG: I kept a diary off and on from eleven to fifteen. I don’t know where they are now, but I used to re-read them often and I guess certain things stuck with me. The intensity of friendships and how important they were to me at that age. In fact, everything was intense at that age, you are desperate to be understood and there is a lot of frustration in that. The challenge was not to patronise the reader, to not talk down to them. I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. The thing I found most interesting is that those feelings and emotions are not limited to children. We can all relate to those feelings of frustration and being misunderstood at some point in our lives.
QaS: The book is set in Jamaica and we get to visit a lot of amazing locations as we follow our characters throughout their various games and adventures on the island. Since you also lived in Jamaica as a child, can you share with us some of your favorite places to visit there?
KG: I love the beach but that’s the most obvious part of Jamaica. We also have some beautiful waterfalls, rivers and mountain hikes. I would love for people to see Jamaica as more than Reggae music and white beaches. Those are obviously things we are proud of, but Jamaica is such a diverse place with mountains on one side with some glorious hikes, waterfalls and rivers, and bustling towns filled with every day people selling fresh fruit, and tasty food on the other. This is my favourite part of Jamaica, the real side. The side where you jump in a car, stop for some jerk chicken at a small restaurant on the side of the road, drive through small towns, climb some mountains, swim in a waterfall and end your day watching a sunset.
QaS: Themes of family and community play an important role in the story. What was your inspiration for creating the community of Sycamore?
KG: I was inspired by my own community in Jamaica and how close everyone was, even if we didn’t always get along. We knew everyone, and we were in and out of everyone’s houses. I really wanted to re-create that sense of community and I don’t think the story would have worked without it. Clara is propped up by her community, whether she realises it or not.
QaS: In the book, the children play a game called pick leaf. One child picks a tree and the others have to find a leaf from that tree and whoever returns with their leaf first wins the game. At the beginning of the book, you mentioned that as a child, you also used to play pick leaf with your friends. Can you tell us a bit more about some of the other local games that are popular with children in Jamaica?
KG: A lot of my memories of Jamaica involved kids coming to our front yard and as a group deciding what games we would play that day. There were a lot of hand games, and ring games that were passed down through generations. Those were the most popular along with pick leaf, but we also played the universal Hopscotch, Hide and Seek, rhyming songs with a skipping rope and Double Dutch.
QaS: When Life Gives You Mangoes is your debut novel, but you’ve also written short fiction as well. What would you say is the biggest difference in terms of your creative process when working on a longer project like a novel, compared to when you’re working on shorter fiction?
KG: For me, there is a lot less planning in a short story. I can sit down and write a short story in twenty minutes. You’re really condensing an entire story to a few hundred or thousand words. You can jump in time, cut corners and worry less about details. I find short stories a lot easier to write because I can choose to write about a day in the life, or jump in the middle of someone’s life then out again without any explanation. I can leave people on the hook, or I can choose to explain it to them. It’s exciting and easier to keep someone hooked for a shorter amount of time. Longer novels take a lot more planning. There really has to be a beginning, middle and end. There has to be a conclusion, and the characters have to resonate. Readers need to get to know the characters well enough to want to invest in their journey, and that takes more time, research and planning. With short stories I can dip in and out of my characters life, with novels I have to stay with them, be them, know them inside out so I can then tell their stories authentically to the reader.
QaS: Over the course of the summer, Clara and her friends go on various adventures, such as going swimming in the river, playing their game of pick leaf, and exploring different locations on the island as they come up with exciting make-believe adventures. For our final question, what are some of your favorite memories from your childhood in Jamaica?
KG: I have some really lovely memories that involve just being in my community. We didn’t leave our little town much, so that was really where I spent most of my time. I remember playing make believe with my cousin, or ring games with the other kids in our front yard. I have a vivid memory of my first hurricane. Watching the adults boarding up the windows, and preparing for the storm. When the rain started, we would sometimes sit on the veranda and watch. I loved rain and still find it soothing to this day. Then as the wind picked up, we would close the door, barricade it, sit in the living room with only a kerosene lamp and wait for the storm to hit. It was both exciting and frightening. But it’s a memory that has stayed with me.
About the author
Kereen Getten grew up in Jamaica where she would climb fruit trees in the family garden and eat as much mango, guinep and pear as she could without being caught. She now lives in Birmingham with her family and writes stories about her childhood experiences. When Life Gives You Mangoes is her debut novel.
You can follow Kereen online at the following: