on November 9, 2011
In an author's note at the back of THE UNFORGOTTEN COAT, Frank Cottrell Boyce tells the story of its genesis, which has its origins in the very first author visit he ever made to a school, shortly after publication of his first novel, the bestseller MILLIONS. It was one of those interactions that lingers in the back of a writer's mind, waiting for a chance to find its way into a story. When it came time for the story to be told, Boyce enlisted the help of collaborators, the photographers Carl Hunter and Clare Heney, whose Polaroid snapshots further elevate this powerful tale.
The story is presented as a notebook. Written by Julie, who's now a young woman with a child of her own, it chronicles the events of her sixth-grade year, events that have never really faded from her memory but are brought back to sudden immediacy upon the discovery, at her old school, of a coat left behind by the boy who became her unexpected friend that year, and of the few dozen photographs in its pockets.
As Julie explains, sixth grade at her small school in Bootle, a suburb of Liverpool, was characterized by mundane obsessions: things such as who liked whom, and who was going to which secondary school the following year. In the UK, sixth grade marks a year between childhood and whatever comes after, and Julie felt that she was in a bit of a holding pattern before the arrival of Chingis Khan and his younger brother Nergui, refugees from Mongolia. All of a sudden, she wasn't just one of the crowd, the girl the boys ignored and the other girls tolerated. She was Chingis and Nergui's "Good Guide," the one they relied upon to teach them the ins and outs of life in Bootle --- and of Western culture more generally.
As Julie spends more time with the brothers, she not only grows fascinated by their tales of the culture and history of Mongolia, she also gains a new appreciation for the ordinary sights of Bootle she used to take for granted: "Until I took on the Good Guide duties, I'd had no idea there was a small tribe of sad-looking Year Five lads who more or less lived in the clump of trees that had been planted to hide the trash cans.... I'd had no idea that Mrs. Harrison spoke French because she came from the Congo. I hadn't known that you could find frogs in the big clump of nettles between the playground and the car park." She also marvels at the brothers' passionate desire to become part of her rather unremarkable world: "The truth was, the boys weren't just learning English; they were hiding themselves inside English, burying themselves in footie and insults, swearing and buzz words. They were learning themselves ordinary."
Just as Chingis and Nergui seem to have assimilated themselves into Bootle school and town life --- complete with a newfound grasp of the rules of football --- Julie discovers surprising new information about them. She has more questions than answers, but her unanswered questions seem as unlikely to be resolved as Chingis's left-behind coat is to be claimed.
Designed to look like a composition notebook, complete with convincingly aged Polaroid photos, THE UNFORGOTTEN COAT draws readers into Julie's mind, and into this unexpectedly rich and complicated world in which she finds herself. This is an unusual book, and one whose political and social implications are as worthy of discussion here in the US as they are in the UK. Like Chingis and Nergui, like that forlorn coat, Boyce's latest novel, although slim in stature, will not soon be forgotten.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl
on July 20, 2012
"The Unforgotten Coat" by Frank Cottrell Boyce is an unforgettable story of two mysterious brothers who befriend a girl (Julie) and appoint her as their "good guide." The brothers pretend they believe they are being chased by a demon. There may not be a real demon, but they are being chased. Julie learns more about the tricky brothers' background and finds the true meaning of fear.
These "Mongolian" brothers show Julie the bliss of having the gift of imagination. As an adult, she pieces together parts of their story and figures out what was really happening from the pictures to the coats to the demon. Julie and the brothers give you laughs and you, the reader, can really compare yourself to these moments of fun.
"The Unforgotten Coat" can be suitable for adults, teens and kids alike. I personally wouldn't suggest it for anybody under 6 because of the way the humor is being shown. It only slightly surfaces and could be hard for younger readers to understand. Also, the meaning and importance of the plot can be hard to grasp. Kids can probably relate to the conveyed feelings of the characters better though.
This book has some very interesting parts. My personal favorite parts are mostly the funny moments. I enjoyed that the author used the simile "it was like watching high tension tennis." The new students were contradicting the teacher and the classmates were looking back and forth, back and forth as if following the ball. I also thought it was especially funny when Julie found "Mongolia" was just pictures of Bootle angled and set up so it gave the illusion of being a certain way. Finally, the last picture reached my heart with the brothers thanking her for being their good guide. This book is definitely specially because in total it teaches you that if you use your imagination, you can convince yourself its one thing. This can make you mentally stronger.
This story should be read by ages 8-800 because of the subtle humor. Younger kids might understand half of it. Also, the book's importance could be irrelevant to them. They won't be able understand the fear of these people. This book would be 5 stars because it gives perspective mystery, and is thought provoking. I would recommend this to any reading lovers.
Review by Young Mensan Dante P., age 10 Northern New Jersey Mensa
on August 28, 2015
This man is a master story teller, there is no doubt of that. This is a tale which has the arrival of two Mongolian boys - brothers Chingis and Nergui -at a Merseyside school, as its hook; but it's actual central character is a kind warm hearted teenage girl, Julie, classmate to the said boys.
The two boys at first are strange, cold and surly, but for one reason and another, they eventually open up to Julie, and by virtue of that to their teacher and classmates. They introduce Julie and the class to strange folk-tales and superstitions, and this is used to make the story roll along; whether the boys use and know they are using metaphors to tell their tale or whether it is coincidental to what is really going on, well, you'll have to read that to find out. Rather oddly, Polaroid photographs play a very large part in this.
Overall the story is slight, but that's not a criticism, the slightness and novella status rather than it being a full length novel keeps it all bright and breezy and engaging.
There is also a very real parallel to this, but I am sure you would prefer to read that when / if you get this.
Three big scousy cheers to F C B.