Aside from reading at every available opportunity at all times of day, I have to read before I go to sleep; it is an essential part of my day without which I can’t get to sleep. However, in recent months, an additional problem has arisen; these days, I can’t sleep if I’ve just finished a book because I spend precious sleep-time thinking about what to read next; so, I have to start reading the next book right then, which works perfectly well until the next book is so good I have to stay up reading that, thus causing a perfect storm of reading problems and a monstrous book hangover.
A case in point: last night, I finished reading ‘The Western Lonesome Society’ at 10.06pm, went up to bed and started ‘One’ by Sarah Crossan, planning to read a couple of chapters before having a restful night of dreaming about libraries and first edition Victorian novels. But then something disastrous happened; ‘One’ turned out to be SO OUTSTANDING that I had to stay up to read the whole thing (and then, obviously, start something else. Honestly, my life is literally ridiculous), thus delaying my bedtime by two hours. I am basically a rock star but with no musical talent and more books.
The only thing I knew about ‘One’ before starting it was the subject matter, which you can probably deduce from the cover; it’s about a set of conjoined twins called Grace and Tippi. What I did not know was that the book is written in free verse (poetry that does not use rhyme or rhythm, for non-English teachers). Each chapter is a poem, ranging from just a couple of lines to several pages long, and the speaker is Grace, the left-hand twin, who narrates a deeply touching story without excessive sentimentality. It is an extraordinary feat.
The book begins with Grace and Tippi being told they have to start attending a mainstream high school, forcing them to confront the interest, prejudice and fear of their peers. Crossan cleverly draws on universal teenage experiences – first kisses, teen rebellion, sibling relationships – while giving them an entirely unique dimension as we view them through the eyes of Grace, who knows she can never achieve true intimacy or independence. Grace initially fears the gaze of her classmates, acknowledging “the probability that I’m/ another person’s nightmare” – Crossan manages to make Grace reflect on her situation without ever descending into self-pity, although you do feel that such a state of feeling would be entirely justified. If anything, Grace has an admirable sense of perspective which makes her an even more compelling character:
On the news are stories about
child abuse and famine and genocide and drought
and I have never once thought
that I would like to
swap my life for any belonging to those people
whose lives are steeped in tragedy.
I loved the way in which Crossan has written the novel; using poetry as a storytelling form has the almost paradoxical effect of downplaying the emotional aspects of Grace’s narrative, with all the blank space on the page allowing the reader room to really reflect on what is happening and how it is being described. There’s no reference to why Grace speaks to us in this way – it isn’t a convenient school project or anything; it is simply a natural and coherent stylistic choice and I thought it was wonderful.
Although unique in its style and content (I can’t think of any other books about conjoined twins), ‘One’ shares a sort of emotional register with ‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio, and the twin-bond has common ground with my beloved ‘I’ll Give You the Sun;’ Crossan’s ‘Apple and Rain’ also focuses on a sister relationship and that’s a book I recommend too. ‘One’ caught me by surprise because I knew so little about it before reading; I do not usually like surprises, but this was a welcome one. I cannot recommend this enough to literally all humans who can read.