YA "One" Sarah Crossan
This is a unique and moving story told through the honest, pragmatic and unsentimental voice of Grace. Crossan's novel is written in free verse and in June it was awarded The Bookseller's YA Book Prize 2016 - just one of many prizes for which I'm sure it will be nominated.
"One" is the story of conjoined twins Grace and Tippi, named after Tippi Hedren and Grace Kelly - 2 of Hitchcock's biggest stars who were "so beautiful it sometimes feels like a cruel joke." They are conjoined from the hips down and have defied medical history by surviving for 16 years, although "lucky isn't really how I would describe us."
"As time ticks by / the chances of us / suddenly / ceasing / to be / get / quite /high / that's just a fact / that will / never / go / away.........I suck it up."
Living as a conjoined twin is described without any undue sensationalism, as to Tippi and Grace it is normal. They have adapted to their life together. They have ways of operating effectively together. Sometimes it's frustrating - for example, "I cannot watch a film in secret / and even with my headphones / on / I know that Tippi hears the tinny hissing / of my music / in her own ears." But, as with waiting for each other, "It's what happens / when / you're bound like we are / to a body too stubborn / to peel itself apart at conception," - this is just the way it is and ultimately they share everything and are everything to each other.
Yet Grace tells us how she struggles to become invisible and longs to be normal and boring, not amazing.
"Normal is the Holy Grail / and only those without it / know its value"
Sometimes she wants to speak for herself and to be seen just as Grace, not always with Tippi. She wants "eyes to focus on me without the tiniest hint of horror." What Grace tells us is at times heartbreaking and always poignant, but her voice remains candid with such a matter of fact tone, that even when her sadness and longing creep in, it doesn't become over sentimental or gratuitous. Crossan has struck a brilliant balance of exploring the emotional, physical and mental journey of teenage conjoined twins that evokes empathy and understanding without voyeurism or pity. As Grace herself says, "hatred's better than sympathy."
Starting a new school, they make new friends. Yasmeen is HIV positive and the girls form a bond with her, knowing how it feels to be "burdened at birth /by a curse your mother /never knew she was under." They also meet Jon. Tippi warns Grace that they can never fall in love, but for Grace this comes too late.
Half way through the book the twins decide to monetise their quite unique life to relieve the family of its financial burden. They turn to reporter Caroline who has plagued them for years and she arrives to film the family every day and reveal the inside story of living as a conjoined twins. This allows Crossan to subtly raise some thought provoking points and ask intrusive questions without making the book trite or hackneyed. Grace's voice constantly the more intelligent, more observant, more philosophic. For example, Caroline says, "You laugh a lot. It's inspiring. You embrace life." "What am I supposed to do with life other than embrace it," Grace flatly replies. These twins are girls who are well balanced and essentially happy. They are inspirational but not because of their conditions, because of their grounded perspective.
Then something happens. Something they hoped would never happen. Neither of them can admit it to the other. This section of the book is painful but also reflects that actually, this is a family that is no different to any other family faced with the most devastating of decisions. I would like to quote more from these elegant and exquisite passages but will refrain- only to avoid spoilers and possibly my tears. There is some beautiful symbolism through the image of a Russian Doll which is filled with several smaller dolls, until the smallest is so tiny it is barely anything at all, but without it, the doll would never be complete.
As I said, the book is written in free verse, so although it is thick and runs to over 400 pages it is actually a very quick read due to each page being one "poem". Each page is given a different heading and is about a different topic, day, incident, emotion, reflection which prevents all the ups and downs (and there are some very down bits) of such a story from becoming overwhelming, depressing or too harrowing. It keeps moving, the pace and structure carefully considered in order prevent overly dwelling on things but still providing enough detail to make the characters, emotions and events authentic and three dimensional. Words linger - in fact the visual effect of extra space at the bottom of the last stanza on each page and the new title on the next, encourage a reflective pause. Crossan's choice to write in this style is inspired and original. It makes the story fresh and completely engaging. The images, symbolism and inference are precise and affecting. The shape of the words on the page adds a whole other layer to the content and I loved the way it changed to reflect certain events and stages of the girls' lives. I also think it is important to see novels written in less conventional forms which opens up a whole new realm of self expression, creativity and imagination for teenagers.
This is a novel I will read again and again and again and again and probably notice something different or deeper each time. I totally admire what Crossan has achieved. At the end of the book, Crossan says it was an honour to write it but I felt it was an honour to read it. I can only imagine what she much have gone through researching and writing this but the result is so impressive. The brevity of her words, the empty space surrounding the lines and words is so effective; what is not said becomes as interesting and resonant as what is said.
I have read "The Weight of Water" (also written in free verse) and "Apple and Rain" (also nominated for prestigious awards) and thoroughly enjoyed them both. I recommend all of these three books for young adults (and fully grown ones too) who love language, issue based books, original characters and well written stories.