REVIEW: One by Sarah Crossan

This is the ninth of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’m going to be reading and reviewing each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS. One more to go, folks!

Grace and Tippi are conjoined twins. Sisters. Best friends. They’ve spent sixteen years sharing absolutely everything, including a body. For other people the very idea is a nightmare, but they’ve never known any different, and is it such a terrible thing to share such a bond with your sister? Changes are on the horizon: new school, new friendships, money troubles, and more dangerous kinds of trouble, too. Soon, Grace and Tippi will have to make a massive, life-changing choice about the future.

One

I went through several phases of reading and writing poetry for pleasure as a teenager, so I’m not a complete stranger to it, but this might be the first novel I’ve read entirely in verse. I loved Apple and Rain, Crossan’s previous novel, which included poetry as part of the story-telling, and I really need to read The Weight of Water because it’s set in Coventry! With a shoutout to the ring road and everything!

Anyway, One… It’s a verse novel about conjoined twins and it’s nominated for the YA Book Prize, and that in itself speaks volumes about UKYA and what an exciting scene it is to be (no matter how small) a part of. This poetry strips language down, makes it looser and more direct, which makes the reader feel closer to the characters. What I’m trying to say here is that this book made me cry at least three tears. I’m always sceptical about supposed tearjerkers because I possess a cold, dead heart, but One is genuinely wrenching and beautiful. The blank verse is never a gimmick, but instead a tool for chiselling away at the reader’s emotions. Is there any other medium that can make your stomach drop with line spacing? It’s the closest the written word comes to music. The novel is actually presented as a poetry collection, though read chronologically it tells a fairly conventional narrative. The titles of each poem variously add context, irony, emphasis; it’s tempting to tear through the book because it’s a quick read, but it’s worth spending time with the text. This will surprise approximately nobody who’s ever read a poem, but each word is placed for maximum effect, with multitudes of meaning.

Individuality is an essential part of identity; we recognise ourselves as separate from others, as possessing some innate selfhood. At the same time, we define ourselves by our relationships with others. For the twins, who share things other people consider definitively private, their identities as separate people are complex. Grace is our sole narrator. The book’s title is One. These are clues as to the end of the book, but also strong statements about the girls’ individuality. It urges us to remember that even those in the unique situation of not having a body to themselves still possess everything else. Grace likes to read, Tippi likes Hitchcock films. They have separate therapists, separate passports. They fall in love with different people.

Only when we appreciate Grace and Tippi as distinct characters can we understand the depth of their bond with each other. It’s this bond of love and sisterhood that sustains them, and the novel itself. It’s this bond that makes the book so absolutely devastating. Grace has never woken up or fallen asleep without Tippi at her side. Throughout the novel, the twins come up against people who think this must be a curse, but they insist to deaf ears that they don’t mind, that it’s always been this way, that they love each other. They are in an extreme situation. Being conjoined twins is certainly not all joyful love-ins all the time: medically, it’s dangerous and expensive. They will never lead a “normal” life – people staring is the least of it. Grace’s descriptions of the difficulties of this life are unsparing. It makes for painful reading at times, but it shines a light on issues I had never had cause to think about before.

Gosh, this book! Your heart will take a battering, but what a beautiful battering it will be.

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