One by Sarah Crossan

The deepest bond of love, two sisters who are sometimes one, and the trials of teenage desire

OSC

Carnegie  Medal shortlist 2016 – Review 2 of 8

One by Sarah Crossan is a beautiful and heart-rending read. It tells the story of Grace and Tippi, conjoined twins, and the multiple challenges they face related to their condition, their family, and simply to being teenage girls.

Dealing with it

When we meet Grace and Tippi (named for the actors who played in Hitchcock films, a common love of their parents), they are sixteen years old and so have pretty much already dealt with the fact that they are not typical twins. They discuss their condition frankly, aware of their limitations but also of their qualities. Their home life is difficult: their mother is frazzled; their father is a borderline alcoholic; their younger sister, affectionately named Dragon, is a ballet dancer erring towards anorexia; and their grandmother makes faux-pas after faux-pas. But none of them walk on egg shells around the girls, which is refreshing. The challenges of daily life are negotiated like a normal family, and there are fights, disagreements, not least between coffee-loving Tippi and mint tea-drinking Grace – the usual.

The masks fall, however, when something out of the ordinary happens – a shortness of breath, a fall. Underneath the surface is the constant reminder of how fragile the girls’ existence is. As Grace says, “Isn’t that amazing? How we manage / to be / at all.”

This is a central theme, how amazing the twins are: simply for them to be living is exceptional. One is not long. It starts in the summer just before the twins move from homeschooling to a private school, and ends before the school year is out.  A short book, and a reminder of how short the twins lives could be – the older they get, the greater their chances of dying.

Naturally, the question of separation hangs over the book, at first as an existential question mark and later as a too-real possibility. I loved this interplay of physical and emotional unity and separation, as Grace and Tippi are simultaneously one and two. They have one body, but it’s more than one and less than one at the same time. They are distinct people, two pretty blonde twins, yet they are also one person, one entity – a super-person, in fact. Reconciling the fact that they are two and one is impossible and  that’s what makes people nervous around them.

Teen life is not all it’s cracked up to be – and Tippi and Grace know it

Having been homeschooled and subjected to namecalling, unwarranted comments, and stares in public, Grace and Tippi are understandably apprehensive about going to school and mingling with other teenagers – their sister Dragon warns them that “high school is hell”. But Crossan is cleverer that that. Yes, there’s a mean note taped to a locker and there’s lots of staring, but all that is beside the point; Tippi and Grace can handle that easily with their dry humour. Much more poignant are the friendships the girls strike with Yasmeen and Jon, other outsiders. Combine fledgling friendships (and relationships) with the contrasting personalities of – literally – the closest of siblings, mixed in with ever more serious health issues, and you have the recipe for a serious tearjerker.

I liked that Crossan doesn’t overemphasise the twins’ experiences in a high school environment. Drinking, smoking, skipping school to hang out with their new friends in a disused church – these things are not heralded as life-affirming, as accomplished dreams, as making it all worth it. I thought that was fresher than a temporary reprieve from the challenges of their life, and also served as a reminder of how wise their situation has made Grace and Tippi – they have a fantastic self-awareness, and there is not one moment of self-pity or self-hate.

But there is also a little sadness in this lack of excitement: it’s as if the twins won’t allow themselves to feel too much or believe that certain things are possible for them, as though being conjoined twins automatically denies them certain things. Tippi tells Grace she can’t fall in love – she doesn’t forbid her sister but says she can’t, as if it’s impossible. But the reader knows, as the girls do themselves, that it is impossible to stop your feelings.

Grace’s quiet voice

The book is told from the perspective of Grace: we listen to her thoughts and feelings but never do we directly hear what Tippi is thinking. Even during the twins’ sessions with Dr Murphy, their therapist, we only get to listen to what Grace says – she puts headphones in while Tippi talks, which they use to block out each other’s discussions with the doctor in one of the rare moments of what passes for privacy.

And it’s clear the twins have very different personalities: Tippi waves happily at strangers who stare, gets angry, and shouts; Grace is the quieter twin who doesn’t “make any ripples”. So it’s poetic that we should experience everything through her voice. But the real point is that as you read Grace’s story, you also read Tippi’s. Sometimes Grace says “I”, sometimes she says “we”, “us”. They are inseparable, after all.

Staggered lines, emotions strung out in halting sentences, each chapter made up of tiny chapterette poems with titles like Milk Trudge and Picasso, told in Grace’s usually timid voice. The simple lyrical style adds a lightness to the book, which contrasts with the sense of finality in a lot of what Grace says, as though the twins have already prepared for the worst. But that doesn’t make it any easier when it comes.

This book is about love

A lot of the beauty of this book is in what goes unsaid. Grace is naturally not verbose, and there is a play between the spoken and unspoken, what people assume (usually, the misery of being a conjoined twin and how they must wish to be separated) and the thoughts inside Grace’s head (actually, her and Tippi are “usually / quite happy together”).

I was desperate for Crossan not to allow the sisters some kind of hope only to snatch it away for the sake of it. And she doesn’t – there is tragedy in One, but it is so much more than a sort of congenital tragedy, a tragedy based purely on how they developed in their mother’s womb, on wishing for a better life, that they had never been born this way. That is not the tragedy of one at all. It is the tragedy of something unbreakable, something you don’t want to break, breaking.

The book is about love, mostly between Grace and Tippi, but also among their family, between their friends Jon and Yasmeen; even from Caroline, a reality TV producer, and her crew. And it really is beautiful. A strong contender for the 2016 Carnegie Medal, both for its form and content.

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