She’s not a piece of me
She’s me entirely
and without her
there would be
a gaping space
in my chest,
an expanding black hole
Award-winning Sarah Crossan’s One is a free verse novel about Siamese twins Tippi and Grace. One has been awarded some of the most prestigious awards for young adult literature such as the CILIP Carnegie 2016, the Bookseller’s YA Book Prize 2016 and the Irish Children’s Book of the Year Award. Crossan has also won, along with Michael Rosen, the CLIPPA children’s poetry award. Writers consider the CILIP Carnegie, given by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, “the one they want to win” since it is awarded by librarians.
One is about Tippi and Grace, named after Hollywood actresses Tippi Hedren and Grace Kelly. They live with their parents, their grandmother aka Gammie, and their younger sister Nicola nicknamed Dragon. Their father is unemployed and has turned into an alcoholic. Their mother works in a bank but is constantly working at home too. Yet the parents never compromise on their twin daughter’s medical care, regular health check-ups and psychiatric visits to Dr Murphy. The novel has been told from the point-of-view of Grace. It is set in a short span of eight months – August to March.
These twins are of the ischiopagus tripus variety – two heads, two hearts, two sets of lungs and kidneys. Four arms, a pair of fully functioning legs. The vestigial leg has been docked. Intestines begin apart and then merge. They are like any other sixteen-year-olds except for the tiny detail of them being conjoined at the hip.
For most of their life they have been home-schooled but the city no longer wants to fund this. So they have to join a private school, Homebeacon High. The twins dread being in public since they are constantly stared at or called monsters and freaks or cursed as devil’s spawn. Fortunately they are befriended by classmates Yasmeen and Jon, who protect them in a manner similar to their family.
We are tired of getting rides
to school and back again every day
so we take the train home
and pretend we can’t hear all the words around us
like little waspy stings.
“I bet celebrities don’t even have it this bad,” Jon
“I can’t imagine what it must be like
“It’s like that,” Tippi tells him
and points at
a woman across the aisle with a phone
aimed at us like a sniper rifle.
The twins enjoy their short spell at school before they contract a flu which unfortunately develops into cardiomyopathy for Grace. It means that Tippi’s heart is functioning for the two of them. Complications arise, necessitating the urgent physical separation of the sisters.
It is expensive surgery, although the doctors have waived their fees. Sadly, there is no guarantee that the girls will survive the medical procedure. So far the girls have miraculously surpassed all medical expectations to live beyond the two-year life span predicted for them.
Just before the sudden dip in their health, their younger sister, who dreams of being a ballet dancer, is invited to a tour of Russia. Of course, the family is too poor to afford it. To make things worse, their mother loses her job.
Much against their will, the girls decide to allow themselves to be shadowed by a documentary filmmaker for a handsome fee of $50,000. They are not particularly keen to be in the limelight like the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton (born 1908), who were the wealthiest performers of their time.
If it were not for the twins being conjoined, One would be like any other YA novel telling a story about teenage angst, love, heartbreak, smoking on the sly, climbing trees etc. And this where the beauty of Sarah Crossan’s graceful craftsmanship lies. She is able to become one with Grace and experience the story, the emotional roller coasters, and focus upon the harsh reality of what it means to be Siamese twins.
This is the only one among her books that she spent more than a year researching. She began writing it after watching a BBC documentary about Minnesotan conjoined twins Abby and Brittany Hensel. As shewrote, “I was immediately captivated by the idea of their lives – fascinated by the ways in which these amazing women managed to live as two separate people in one body, and I made it my mission to find out everything I possibly could about conjoined twins. I knew there was the potential for a novel in there, but I was also petrified of writing about something that was entirely unknown to me.”
Crossan spoke to “Edward Kiely, leading separation surgeon for conjoined twins in Europe, to help answer some of my hypothetical medical questions, forcing me to tighten up certain parts of the plot to create a world that was completely real.”
“Although I was working on Apple and Rain at the time, and actually scrambling to get it to my publisher by deadline, I would go to the British Library every day and instead of focusing on Apple and Rain, would ask the librarians to help me find articles and books about the lives of conjoined twins through history and especially medical research about separation surgery. I had found a topic that I wanted to write about, but I wanted to tell it honestly and accurately, because the more the I read, the more I realised how misunderstood the lives of these people have been, and how ready people seem to be to say, ‘If it were me, I would want to be separated,’ without every fully considering the intimacy of such a relationship, not to mention the many joys it brings.
— Sarah Crossan in ‘The Guardian’
One deserves all the awards it has garnered, not only for the range of issues it touches upon – for instance what it means to be a conjoined twin with no option to move independently but to be tethered in body, mind and, possibly, spirit – making joint decisions and unable to live an independent life – but also for its unique form.
Normal is the Holy Grail
and only those without it
know its value.
There are also ethical issues at play. The documentary is ultimately made more for voyeuristic entertainment purposes than out of empathy for the twins’ predicament. The medical fraternity’s offer to separate the twins free of cost stems from a rare opportunity to understand this unusual biological phenomenon.
One is a seminal book for its refreshing experiment in form and content. Crossan has to be admired for the sensitivity with which she has written the story, without being crudely inquisitive or didactic. She has raised the bar many notches for YA literature.
Sarah Crossan One Bloomsbury, London, 2015. Hb. Pp. 432 Rs 499