In 2013 I challenged myself to read all the shortlisted titles for that year’s Carnegie Award and found that I discovered authors new to me and also explored genres that had beforehand not appealed. The high point of the exercise for me was a book called The Weight of Water, a debut written in free verse by Sarah Crossan. Had it not been for the Carnegie this was a book that I would probably not have selected from the shelves and yet I loved it. A poignant, touching story of a Polish teenager struggling to make a new life in England that left me moved and also impressed by the author’s skill. Since then Sarah Crossan has been shortlisted for the Carnegie again with Apple and Rain, won the award for One in 2016, been appointed Laureate na nÓg and this year was longlisted for the Carnegie for Toffee. Every one of her books has made an impact on me, in particular Moonrise, a devastating story centred on capital punishment and sibling love which was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award in 2017.
So to Toffee, published last year and somehow on my to read list all this time without actually being read. Thank goodness for the 20 Books of Summer 20 challenge. Something that Sarah Crossan does with great success is make challenging subjects accessible to her readers. The writing style, like her previous books, told in verse, results in pages with much white space, short sentences and a book that feels like an ‘easy read’. Easy perhaps in reading speed but not however in content. Toffee tells the story of Allison who runs away from home and is taken in by Marla, an elderly woman with dementia, who in her confused state of mind mistakes Allison for an old friend, Toffee. Allison has reasons for disguising who she is and so does not correct her mistake and moves in with the old lady. Gradually a relationship of sorts develops between the two which slowly becomes a bond of friendship and the reader sees these two fragile people discover a strength and a unity that is at times quite beautiful.
I loved this, so much so that as I reached the last page I wanted to turn back and start again at the beginning. Sarah Crossan writes about difficult subjects such as abuse, dementia and mental health with care and with kindness. She draws her characters so well that you want the best for them even when they are not behaving perfectly. Is Allison taking advantage of Marla at first? We are asked to suspend judgement and wait for events to unfold and when they do we are rewarded with a story that feels complete and believable. The verse format enables us to witness the story in a series of snapshots and therefore the more harrowing aspects are not dwelt on yet they are still deeply affecting.
The depiction of dementia is disturbing in its poignancy. There are flashes of the younger Marla, her humour and lust for life reappear and we are made aware of the woman she once was. Or perhaps still is, just buried a little further down beneath layers of life, experience and age. Sometimes the friendship between Marla and Allison breaks through the mists of memory loss and the two share a pleasure in dancing and joking together. It is both heartbreaking and beautiful.
This YA title is one that I imagine will be extremely popular in secondary schools, the style will enable it to be read by a wide audience and its important themes lend themselves to discussion and thoughtful exploration. Sarah Crossan has become one of my favourite authors.