If they gave prizes out purely for being bold and experimental, they may as well give the Carnegie Medal to Sarah Crossan now. The Weight of Water is a novel told in verse, which must be a first for the Carnegie shortlist and possibly a first for a novel that's aimed at a 9+ audience.
Suitably enough, it's largely written in a straightforward, no frills style: after all, it's told from the perspective of a 12 year old Polish girl, so don't run to the hills kids - The Wasteland it isn't. It tells the story of Kasienka and her mother, arriving in England to look for Kasienka's father, who'd left them two years ago. Cut up by her mother's heartache, put out at being held back a year in school for simply 'being Polish' and ostracised by her peers, Kasienka's outlook seems bleak. But then someone new enters her life...
The main strength of Crossan's story is the witty little snapshots of early teenage life we get from Kasienka's knowing observations. If there was no central narrative thread running through the story, this could almost be a collection on the observations of school life in the vein of, say, Gervase Phinn's Dales Series. Take, for instance, Kasienka's observation on the school bell:
Teachers try to lead the processions:
'I will decide when the lesson ends,' they insist.
But they cannot compete
With The Bell.
But there's more to it than that of course, for this is a tale with a powerful emotional core, that succeeds in vividly capturing the tumultuous experience of secondary school. From learning how to play the popularity game, to dealing with teachers who don't know the half of it, to fretting over your first kiss...it's all here. Here's one example I particularly liked, taken from the segment entitled 'When Boys Fight':
So maybe what I should do is
Hit Clair -
Knock her down
And we could brawl in the playground too,
With everyone watching.
Then people would know
I'd been in a battle.
The meaning, of course, been that the hostility between girls centres around back biting, instead of in-yer-face having it out, so Kasienka can't convey the cruel treatment of Clair to those who can help.
Moments like this are when The Weight of Water is at its most impressive. The spare narrative style stops things from becoming too cloying or sentimental too: admittedly certain plays for the heart strings aren't quite as subtle as this, but these can be forgiven.
What stops me just short of championing Crossan for the Carnegie is that, when all's said and done, this is a story that's been told many times before. Yes, every story's been told, but this is one that's been particularly overdone, and better. For instance, it could be argued that both A Monster Calls and My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece from last year's shortlist also deal with the pain of adversity, loss and loneliness in the jungle-like school environment. For me, The Weight of Water wouldn't stand out in the same way as those two books without its unique narrative style, and sometimes this isn't enough.
But ultimately, it's still a good, enjoyable read, and you'd need a tar black heart to not be moved in places!