Not only is it Saturday, friends, but it’s now June, too. What on earth is going on with this relentless forwardness, eh? It’s enough to make a gal’s head spin. In any case, we’ve got to keep on keepin’ on, and in that spirit I present to you a review – not so much of a particular book this week, but of an author’s oeuvre to date. (Don’t worry – she has ‘only’ published two books so far. We won’t be here all day, or anything.)
I thought I’d do my review like this because I have such varying feelings about the two books in question, both written by Irish-American author Sarah Crossan. One of these books is among the most unique and crafted pieces of fiction I’ve read for the YA readership (or, indeed, in general); the other is also an excellent book, but somehow lacking. The former is this book, right here:
The latter book is this ‘un here:
I’m not sure I’ve ever been so torn between two books by the same author before. It’s probably because I read ‘The Weight of Water’ first, and – to be fair – very little could stack up against it. What makes the book so special is not even the plot, or the characterisation, or the setting, or the dénouement (even though all these things are great, in their own right), but the fact that it is entirely written in verse.
I’m not talking Shakespearean sonnets or rhyming couplets here – more like free-form verse, perhaps, than anything – but this narrative style lends the book such power and heft that it’s hard to imagine how it could have been done any better.
The story takes us through a journey made from Poland to the UK, undertaken by Kasienka and her mother. They are searching for Kasienka’s father, who has abandoned his family, leaving them practically destitute, not to mention heartbroken. They have no idea of his whereabouts until they receive a postcard from him with a British postmark, which leads to their arrival in the UK. The first poem in the book describes their leaving Poland, and Kasienka’s mother’s obsession with a borrowed nylon laundry bag full of clean clothes which is at once a source of pride (because the clothes are clean), and a source of embarrassment (because they’re in a borrowed and unstylish bag), for her. When they eventually arrive in Britain, she is too ashamed to claim the bag of clothes from the baggage carousel, and so they leave it behind. It’s a small image, but I found it very effective in describing the mental and emotional baggage they bring with them from their home country; the mental baggage, of course, is much more difficult to leave behind.
Kasienka (immediately dubbed ‘Cassie’ by her teachers and schoolmates, none of whom can be bothered to learn her real name) is put in with children much younger than herself when she begins to attend school, simply because her English is not perfect; bored and understimulated, she sticks out from the others from the outset. When her intelligence is discovered, she is finally placed among her peers, but finds she is still an outsider. Exotic, intelligent and a talented swimmer, she becomes an object of jealousy among the other girls. The book takes us through Kasienka’s savage treatment at the hands of bullies, the practical, not to mention emotional, difficulties she experiences in sharing a one-bedroomed flat with her heartbroken and out-of-touch mother, the ongoing search for her father, her swimming prowess, and her courage in carving out a new life from a country and community that seems, at least at first, unyielding. Kasienka’s voice, aided by the powerful verse narration, is evocative and touching, and her courage is unmatched. I devoured this book, not only because I loved the story, but because I loved Kasienka, too.
It’s no wonder this book was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Give it a go. Go on.
Then, we come to ‘Breathe’.
Before I get into my thoughts on this book, I want to say that I read it with relish, and enjoyed it. It’s well written, with wonderful descriptions and imagery, and an expert use of language. Sarah Crossan is an exceptional writer, and ‘Breathe’ shows her mastery of prose just as clearly as ‘The Weight of Water’ showed her mastery of verse. Having said that, ‘Breathe’ just seemed ‘same-old, same-old’ in comparison with ‘Water’.
‘Breathe’ imagines a world in which the oxygen supply has dwindled to a point where it can no longer sustain life. The remnants of humanity live in a sealed dome; to leave this Pod is to enter the airless wastes, wherein nobody can go very far because, obviously, bottled air will only last so long. Even within the Pod, there are societal divisions; the upper levels of society (Premiums), who can afford sufficient oxygen, never have to worry about counting their breaths, but the lower levels, Auxiliaries, must make do with thinner air. The government who runs this dystopian world is called Breathe, and they control the lives of everyone who lives on this terrible vision of a future Earth. Naturally, in a dystopia where we have an oppressive regime, there will also be a resistance – this book is no different. The Resistance want to try to repopulate the planet’s surface with trees (they were all cut down, which led to the oxygen deprivation in the first place), but they are thwarted at every turn by Breathe. What happens, then, when a desperate Resistance fighter meets an idealistic young Premium and his best friend, an Auxiliary girl with aspirations to become a Premium herself, and all three are ejected into the airless wastes?
There’s a lot of good stuff in this book. The whole set-up of the world lends oppressive urgency to proceedings, which makes the plot zip along pleasingly. The horrors of slow suffocation are described, and we are left in no doubt as to what the people of this world are risking when they mess about with their air supply. Several times, as I read, I felt compelled to take a deep breath, just because I could. Oxygen never seemed like a luxury until I read this novel. I really liked Alina, the Resistance fighter character – she’s hard and flinty and resolved, just as she should be, and I also liked Maude, an elderly woman eking out an existence in the Outside with a long and dark past behind her. I enjoyed the SF elements – the solar air tanks, the ‘zips’ (robotic search-and-destroy units which detect body heat), and the well-imagined stratified society within the Pod.
However, I had issues with Bea (the Auxiliary girl) and Quinn (the Premium boy), mostly to do with the love story between them, which felt flat and uninspired, and also – if I’m being honest – unnecessary. Also, a lot of the time, I was confused as to whether Bea or Alina was narrating (the book’s narration hops between these three main characters, but Bea’s voice and Alina’s are similar enough to blend together at times.) Bea is a good character, but her devotion to Quinn was a little irritating – that said, as a teenager I often mooned over wildly inappropriate boys, too, so I can’t judge her too harshly – and Quinn, to be fair, does show a reasonable amount of character development as the book carries on. He’s still a bit of a blockhead at the end, though.
I thought the end of the book went a little too quickly, and things were wrapped up a little too well – but a sequel is imminent this year, so I’ll hold judgement till then.
‘Breathe’ is a reasonable dystopian thriller, but there are plenty of those already out there. However, there’s nothing like ‘The Weight of Water’ in the world, at least not that I’ve ever read. I’d recommend both books, but maybe read ‘Breathe’ first. I’m just sayin’.
Happy weekend, amigos. Go! Read!