In this stunning verse novel from Carnegie Medal winning YA author Sarah Crossan we meet Alison, a young woman on the run from a difficult situation at home. She ends up in a bleak seaside town. Alone, and with nowhere else to sleep, she hides out in the shed of an abandoned house. It soon transpires the house isn’t empty. An elderly woman named Marla lives there. Dementia has left Marla confused and mistaking Alison for an old friend called Toffee. She invites the young woman to move in with her. At first Alison is quite blatantly taking advantage of Marla but soon she begins to care for her. What transpires is a strange but intriguing friendship where the women become increasingly dependent on each other for company and companionship. The novel is perhaps, best summed up by the short four sentence description on the back cover.
“I am not who I say I am. Marla isn’t who she thinks she is. I am a girl trying to forget. Marla is a women trying to remember.”
Despite their differences Marla and Alison have much in common. They manage to become a kind of support network for each other as Marla tries to make sense of her past and the fractured network of her memories while Alison attempts to brave the future and the big changes she’s going to have to make.
Essentially this is Alison’s story. It’s told in the first person from her perspective but includes descriptions and analysis of Marla, snippets of her dialogue and even secondary sources like text messages. Through Alison’s eyes we are given a wonderful picture of an older woman, living alone with Dementia who is anxious to maintain her independence and determined to continue being fully herself. Marla is not the usual dottery old lady, depicted in much of Dementia fiction. She is feisty, funny and desperately quirky; as annoying as she is likable. In Marla, Crossan has created a unique and incredibly appealing character. She’s made it ok to find aspects of Dementia truly hilarious.
“I can’t get my feckin’ tights on, Marla shouts
from the bedroom next to mine.
My arse has expanded.”
Perhaps the most unique feature of the novel is its style. Crossan has written the entire story in verse. It reads like a novel, though looks like a poetry collection on the page. All the white space around the words serve as a constant reminder of the fact that because of Dementia there is often as much said, or implied in the silences, as there is when Marla speaks. This sense of erasure and retaining what’s essential about who a person is and was, is mirrored in Alison’s story and eluded to in Crossan’s beautiful words.
“No goodbye is forever
unless you can
erase everything you ever knew about a person
and everything you once felt.”
Toffee is a truly beautiful novel. It’s fractured language and lyrical, mesmerising tone is perfect for exploring the theme of Dementia. As I read, I felt Crossan was trying to pin down something fleeting and elusive with her sentences. She does an amazing job of capturing what it’s like for a teenager to do life with someone who’s living with Dementia. I’d recommend this as an essential read for young adults and actual adults alike.
Toffee was published by Bloomsbury in 2019