Carnegie Shortlist 2016 – Carnegie Medal Winner – Crossan

Some belated thoughts on this year’s Carnegie winner – Sarah Crossan’s One.

UK hardback jacket for Sarah Crossan's One.

Finally I come to the final belated post in my series on the 2016 Carnegie Medal titles. This year’s award went to Sarah Crossan’s One, a verse novel told in the voice of Grace, a teenage conjoined twin. This is the third year Crossan has been shortlisted for the prize. When I read last year’s Apple and Rain, I commented that Crossan would be better off committing to poetry (Apple and Rain just features poetry within a prose narrative). My instincts were right, as this is a far superior novel (I haven’t read Crossan’s other verse novel, The Weight of Water).

The book opens with Grace’s comment on her own existence:

We Are.

And we are living.

Isn’t that amazing?

How we manage
to be
at all.

This opening is both a claim and a challenge, and the book as a whole grapples with these two aspects. Grace and her sister Tippi are subject to the unwelcome curiosity and amazement of those who wonder ‘how they can live like that’; at the same time, Grace makes it clear that their existence is amazing in the positive sense. These two issues are brought into sharper focus for Grace and Tippi over the course of the book as they first begin to attend high school (having previously been homeschooled) and then open up their lives to the scrutiny of a reality TV show. Attending high school also gives Grace and Tippi access to life experiences that they have previously been denied, and much of the book is taken up with their growing friendship with another two misfits and Grace’s feelings about falling in love with one of them.

I enjoyed this book a lot: the poetry format makes it very readable and I fairly gulped it down. There’s a lot of tension and it’s one of the only books on the list which made me really keen to get to the end and find out how things turned out (Talley’s book was the other one that gripped me in this way). There was also a good deal to appreciate in the way Crossan negotiated the issue of disability; I found the portrayal of the twins’ younger sister, Dragon, particularly strong. Grace reflects on whether having ‘freaks’ for sisters might make Dragon into a freak too, but although it’s clear that Grace and Tippi’s condition does affect Dragon (and the family as a whole) it’s not presented as the only issue, nor even as the most difficult one. As someone who has a sibling with a disability, this aspect particularly chimed with me – we’re never asked to pity Grace and Tippi, nor Dragon.

The book doesn’t quite negotiate the question of public scrutiny of conjoined twins as well as it might. Although it critiques the invasive curiosity about conjoined twins (Grace tells us ‘people always want to know’ about the details of their bodies), by definition it’s also inviting us to partake in exactly this kind of curiosity (Grace obliges by telling us the details of their anatomy). The introduction of the reality TV show could have been a good way of forcing readers to confront the implications of our own curiosity, but Crossan draws back from making us really uncomfortable by having the TV producer turn out to be unexpectedly sympathetic. Implicitly we, like the producer, understand the ‘correct’ limits to our curiosity. Instead of taking this route, Crossan lapses into a little sentimentality at the end (albeit this is rather enjoyable – as a lover of nineteenth century novels I can’t fault a good old sentimental ending!).  This book has something of the same problem as Talley’s then – both books were unwilling to make the reader feel uncomfortable, and as a result they fail to have the impact they could have had. Making the reader uncomfortable is a chancy business, of course, but I think that a truly ‘outstanding’ book could push a tiny bit further.

Considering the Carnegie list this year, I’m fairly happy with this as a winner – but not passionate. Notwithstanding some of my critiques of these novels, I thought they were all pretty solid, but they didn’t really excite me in the way some past lists or winners have. Perhaps this simply reflects what was eligible this year, although I was disappointed not to see one of Robin Stevens’ sparkling detective novels on the shortlist (one was eligible, though I forget now which one). And as I mentioned in my last post, the Carnegie does have something of a diversity problem. Still, maybe next year.

Next post – back to the Carnegie inners of yore with B.B.’s The Little Grey men.