Wednesday, 14 October 2015

One, by Sarah Crossan

One is the story of 6 months in the lives of Tippi and Grace, 16 year old conjoined twins living in New Jersey. Two heads, four arms, two hearts, two legs; they are joined at the hip. Though they share a body, Tippi and Grace have vastly different personalities, though luckily they get on most of the time. The book is narrated by Grace; quieter, more thoughtful and less antagonistic than her twin, she sometimes struggles to assert herself against her sister, often leaving the talking to Tippi. Personally I think telling the story from the perspective of the quieter twin was inspired, as the reader gets to see the strongest character, the brash, opinionated, sassy Tippi through the eyes of the one person in the world who truly knows her the most. A person that has literally never left her side for a second.

The twins fight everyday to be accepted as individuals, while at the same time living with the difficulties and the logistical impossibilities of inhabiting the same body. What if one chooses to smoke and the other doesn't? What if one gets ill and is bedridden? Though each has their own hobbies, opinions and personality, they come as a package and their bond is more than just skin and bone. Theirs is a literal, unbreakable bond that runs even deeper than sisterhood or love; it’s at the core of who they are. It's interesting to see them as individuals but also as two members of a team that need to work and live together. I loved Grace's musings on all the potential crimes she could hypothetically commit, knowing she could never be imprisoned as Tippi would have to go to prison too, making any conviction illegal. I was charmed Grace's romanticism, her loyalty and her dry sense of humour.

Having previously always been homeschooled, Grace and Tippi are enrolled in High School for the first time when their mother loses her job and their already unemployed father falls further and further into alcohol dependence. Though they make friends (brilliant, wonderful friends in Jon and Yasmin, by the way, glorious, foul-mouthed weirdo outcasts) being out in public is a harrowing experience; as well as the stares and the comments, there are the blatant photos and covert recordings wherever they go. As if being a new kid in school isn't horrible and difficult enough. When the family's financial situation gets desperate, Tippi and Grace decide to do what they'd always sworn not to; sell their story, their lives, their privacy to a documentary film-maker, who records around the clock.

I really liked that the rest of the family is unfolded through this documentary too- we get to see the effects of having conjoined twins in the family through grandma, mum, dad and younger sister Dragon. Dragon especially must have it tough- the third wheel, the one that has to make the sacrifices for both sisters, and does so without resentment. We might witness Tippi's therapy sessions (though not hear them- headphones) and we have a front row seat for Grace's sessions, but there seems to be very little outlet for the rest of the family. Where do they go to talk through the strain? The cost of the medical bills, the weight of the worry? We see what a responsibility Tippi and Grace inadvertently, but inescapably are on the family, how they try to keep everything together for the sake of their version of normal. It made me furious to see how Grace's family struggled financially, like being a conjoined twin was an extravagant lifestyle choice.

A few months into the semester Tippi and Grace are faced with a life altering decision. Following a bout of Flu and a couple of blackouts, Grace contracts an infection that means her heart has stopped functioning properly. The twins need to decide- do they attempt a surgical separation, and risk dying? Or do they stay as they are, together until the end- an end that is a certainty and not very far away at all. Watching them have to make such a decision is heartbreaking, and really makes the reader think about the random, mysterious pot-luck that is life, and all of the unfair, unlikely and unknowable things that happen along the way to people that just don't deserve it.

The end section is so unbelievably sad- the verse just makes it even more so. With verse, there's no need to conform to normal storytelling, no need to be tied to the narrative or the restraints of what makes sense and what doesn't. What the verse allows, at the end, is just pure, overflowing raw emotion, and it's perfect. It really is a beautiful, extraordinary book. To be able to tell such an affecting, emotional and complete story with so few words is an incredible achievement. Every word, every line is essential and the whole narrative is alive with this delicate, lyrical poetry that makes reading this novel a truly illuminating experience. We understand what it might be like to live a life without ever having experienced a moment of privacy or isolation, even if we have never been there ourselves.

I really loved The Weight of Water, and while Apple and Rain was good, I felt it lacked the emotional punch of the former. One packs that same punch. Probably a slightly weightier one. I'm getting ahead of the game and putting this down as a certainty for next year's Carnegie. After two shortlistings in the last 3 years, I think 2016 is Crossan's year.

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