The Unforgotten Coat, By Frank Cottrell - Reviews - Books - The Independent

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The Unforgotten Coat, By Frank Cottrell

This children's novella is almost as much about Mongolia as Bootle, where the action takes place. It is illustrated with Polaroid photographs taken by Carl Hunter and Clare Heney, which are both haunting and deliberately misleading, and told by an author who can't seem to stop winning prizes. Starting life as a free gift to 50,000 people from the Reader Organisation in Liverpool, it is now available for a wider audience.

The narrator is local girl Julie, writing on exercise-book paper and recalling years later her last term at primary school, where "until this moment I thought I had learned all I would ever need to learn". She is referring to the arrival in her class of Chingis and his younger brother Nergui, young nomads who have travelled from the borders of Outer Mongolia. Wearing furry coats and hats however warm the weather, the boys appoint Julie as their special Good Guide to all things British.

In return they tell her of Xanado, wolves hunted with eagles, and the Demon who is on their tail, the reason they left home. Because of this threat, they travel to and from their temporary council flat each day by a different route. To further confuse the Demon, they leave a pastry model of a boy on the doorstep in the hope that he will gobble it up as the real thing.

The mystery deepens when Julie and her mother trace the boys home one evening in order to return a left-behind coat after a school Own Clothes Day. The boys' frightened mother starts weeping when she finally answers the door, before Chingis slams it shut. Next day the boys are missing from school. Julie tracks them down and gets the surprise of her life. Readers of any age will at this point surely find themselves scrabbling back through the text and photos to see what they will almost certainly have missed.

To find out more, read this funny, original and moving tale for yourselves. Taking its inspiration from a true story about a Mongolian child refugee in Bootle, eventually returned to her country following a midnight raid by the immigration authorities, it focuses on a contemporary social problem with never a hint of preaching. Only a hundred pages in length, it is a joy to read.

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