Carnegie Medal Shortlist 2013: The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan

I have got all out of sync with my Carnegie Medal reviewing, despite having read nearly all the titles now. So, to make amends, here is the first of my reviews

The Weight of Water

This appealing-looking little book is written as a poem. Now, normally this would put me off a bit, because I struggle to concentrate on poetry, but this is actually very easy to get into and stay with. The trouble I have connecting with poetry does make it a really hard book for me to review though. It is most definitely a story with a beginning, middle and end, which did make it easier for me to read. Still, I’m not sure I’m a convert to this style yet.

The story is about a mother and daughter who leave Gdansk to come to Coventry. Mama is looking for her husband, who left home leaving a very curt note simply stating he had gone to England. It’s difficult starting over in Coventry for her daughter, Kasienka. On top of the trials of being a teenager, and being the new girl at school, she also feels she’s ostracised for being Polish. In the chapter called ‘Pale’ she says
‘I’m not welcome to play. The reason: I’m too white.
No one likes too-white, Eastern white.
Polish winter white. Vampire-fright white.’
In places, like this, I think using poetry allows for some very striking and memorable images. This particular poem also allows some assumptions about racism to be challenged; it’s about more than skin colour. The prejudice she and her mum encounter is saddening.
The cultural differences are highlighted well throughout the story. Everything is alien for Kasienka: the weather, the food, where she lives, and her schoolwork. There’s the humiliation of being put in a class with younger children because English is not her first language. The classes are too easy for her and she of course feels very resentful. It’s difficult to make friends with the other girls, who appear unfriendly and spiteful. The move also strains her relationship with her mother, especially when her mum does manage to make a friend before she does. Kasienka’s loneliness comes across clearly.
It is her love of swimming that gives her the chance of freedom and friendship, but even that has its price. Being good at something doesn’t always improve your popularity at school. But, her talent does give Kasienka something to feel good about, and that has a positive effect on her whole life, I think.
Overall, I am not sure that I fully appreciated the poem form of this story when I was reading it. I didn’t really slow down in my reading to take note of the rhythm, but the story has stayed in my mind more than I’d have expected. On reflection, I think the sparseness of the story-telling actually has more impact than if it had been written in prose. Although I sometimes empathised with Kasienka’s situation I didn’t feel sorry for or pity her. I think this is because it is written from her perspective. So, although I’m still not sure how much I liked reading the story as a poem, I think it is done very well.

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