Review: The Lost Soul Atlas by Zana Fraillon

The Lost Soul Atlas
Author: Zana Fraillon
Release Date: July 14, 2020
Publisher: Hachette Australia
RRP: $19.99 (PB)

Synopsis: Twig is all alone after his dad goes missing. But when he meets Flea, a cheerful pickpocket, the pair become fast friends. Together, Twig and Flea raise themselves on the crime-ridden streets, taking what they need and giving the rest to the even-poorer. Life is good, as long as they have each other. But then Twig wakes up in the Afterlife. With just a handful of vague memories, a key, a raven, and a mysterious atlas to guide him, he tries to piece together what happened, and to find his way home . . .

Review: The Lost Soul Atlas follows Twig, a boy who wakes up in the afterlife with no memory of his former life. When Twig strays off the beaten track straight into the mysterious Gatherer, he accepts a difficult task: to open the crossings between the Afterlife and the mortal world and release the memories of lost souls. With the company of his Afterlife guardian, skeleton raven Krruk, an army of animated miniature twig figures (lovely symbolism there), and with the Afterlife officials hot on his trail, he begins a quest to open the crossings.

There is a catch; at each delightfully creative crossing Twig must answer correctly a riddle given by the sentry. It’s here he delves into the memories of his old life, piecing together his past up until the moment of his death – without delving too far and running the risk of losing himself completely.

It’s through these flashbacks we get a sense of Twig’s life. After the disappearance of his beloved Da, he is befriended by whip-smart pickpocket, Flea, and the pair make a home at the Boneyard, a home for the homeless. They explore the streets of London inventing money-making schemes, while narrowly avoiding the law and the shadow of the ominous Hoblin.

Comparatively, the officials chasing Twig in the Afterlife spell little danger for him. Scenes in the Afterlife exhibit a quirky sense of humour to lighten the dark themes of Twig’s reality, often making light of the vagaries of the establishment and its officials. (Even in the Afterlife, there is no escaping the bureaucracy.)

It’s Twig’s reality that carries many of the book’s darkest moments: several characters are made to ‘disappear’ by gang leader Hoblin and her cronies, there are run-ins with the police and a dead body is found in the river. The Lost Soul Atlas tackles complex social issues such as homelessness, poverty, found family, corruption, boundaries and city life. There are discussions here about how the disenfranchised are treated in society, how communities are formed under hardship and how the system is organised to exclude such people from social mobility.

This isn’t a book for reluctant readers – the beginning is unnerving and heavy on exposition. The reader, like Ariadne, is given a ball of thread to untangle as the book unfolds and in doing so will share the same frustrations as Twig uncovering his lost memories. It’s also not one for younger readers. But it is an excellent story for older readers – upper primary and YA – who enjoy stories with elements of magic and sophisticated themes about life, death, community, friendship and family.

The Lost Soul Atlas is a remarkable read, poignant and empathetic and direct in its depictions of social hardships. It is a book to start a conversation.

Recommended Age: 12+.

Favourite Quote: ‘Do you know why you ache for your lost memories? Because memories are never just your own. They are the stories and the knowings of everyone who has come before. It is what you feel without thinking.’

Themes: Family, found family, fantasy, friendship, coming-of-age, nonbinary, loyalty, memory, community, city living, death, afterlife, boundaries, maps, crossings, hardship, disenfranchisement, corruption, society.

Rating: ★★★★

If you liked this, you’ll like: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, There May Be a Castle by Piers Torday, Legend by Marie Lu, Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend.

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