Tuesday 19 June 2007

The Girls

Lori Lansens

I once read that stories fall into two types – those about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and those about extraordinary people doing ordinary things. I’m not sure why we can’t read about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, maybe there’s some theory that we’d be unable to identify with such titans of human endeavour outside a comic strip.

Anyway, The Girls brought this to mind, because it slides between the two supposed types in very interesting ways. You could read the first page and decide that it’s obviously the tale of two extraordinary people - the world’s oldest surviving craniopagus twins - twins joined at the skull - living an ordinary life in ‘small-town Leaford’. But their lives - and there are two lives, not one – though surprisingly normal, are no more ‘ordinary’ than any real person’s life.

Born on the night of a tornado that snatched the neighbour’s child and his blue bicycle from the drive, Rose and Ruby are abandoned by their young mother, possibly because they are conjoined, more likely because they are unplanned and illegitimate in rural Canada. Affairs, deaths, lost parents and children may not be extraordinary in the scale of human experience, but they are not mundane or quotidian in this book.

Adopted by the nurse who delivered them, ‘Aunt Lovey’, the girls are raised to be independent and free of self-pity. At the age of three their adoptive mother puts their new dolls out of reach, forcing them to move across the room with Rose’s legs, the one good pair they have between them. ‘According to Aunt Lovey, it took Ruby six months to coax me across the room,’ recounts Rose. ‘A casual observer might have thought she was just being cruel, but Aunt Lovey wanted more for us than just survival.’

So, no martyred memoir of childhood adversity here, and no self-obsession either. Though the book starts as autobiography, it ranges through the family histories of Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash, his Slovak family, and the wider web of friendship and community in which the Girls live. It’s clear to Rose and Ruby, as well as the reader, that being foreign, or poor, makes you an outsider just as surely as being a conjoined twin. It’s equally clear that feeling sorry for yourself is not going to be encouraged.

The girls themselves are a bit too good to be true – then again, they are telling their own story, so perhaps they’re showing themselves at their best. In fact, most of the characters come out of the story pretty well, with even the least sympathetic showing almost no deliberate malice. This might be evidence of the girls’ positive outlook on life, but unfortunately it makes for a limited palette of character motivation.

The premise of the book is that Rose has decided to write her autobiography, that Ruby has objected to the inevitable revelation of her own life, and so the twins have agreed to write separate chapters and not compare notes along the way. This means that we get both sides of the story, but not necessarily at the same time. And the two witnesses don’t always agree. It’s sometimes touching to see how often the girls are mistaken in thinking they can read each others’ minds, and sometimes outright funny.

Just being in the same room at the time doesn’t mean you see things the same way. Rose is literary and rational, Ruby superstitious and a collector of Indian artefacts. Ruby makes an unusually diffident narrator, unsure that anyone would want to read what she’s writing, ‘Who wants to read about a couple of sisters who work at the library in a boring small town, even if we are joined at the head? If you spend an hour with us, you get over the physical weirdness of our being conjoined and see that my sister and I are just two normal women’.

In one sense she’s right. If this were just an account of how two conjoined sisters hold down a library job and cope with a family life no more bizarre than most, it would be rejected as neither harrowing nor uplifting enough to become a bestseller. But as a book about love it is unpredictable and full of insight.

Forced always to be in the same place, sharing a blood supply, Rose and Ruby are an extreme version of any close relationship; siblings, best friends, or a married couple. The compromises they are forced to make, attending extra maths classes that only one twin needs, or drinking champagne when one twin can’t stand alcohol, are also an extreme version of the compromises in any relationship.

Even that relationship, alone, might make a thin novel, but it’s only one strand of the story. The love of parents and children is also a recurring theme, and the love story of Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash is almost as central as that of the girls themselves. Though episodes are told out of chronological order, and the connections and significance only gradually emerge, the resulting book is rich and moving.

Although, the book is too self-conscious sometimes, allowing its narrators too many pages of self-doubt or agony about the writing process that shed too little light on the characters and their stories. It’s also a little inclined to draw our moral conclusions for us. But by sharing the storytelling between Rose and Ruby it leaves space, not only for their different perspectives, but for the reader to piece together the stories and find an individual emotional response.

It sidesteps nearly all the manipulative tear-jerking moments that it could so easily set up for us, leaving events to speak for themselves. But it knows how to tease the reader’s curiosity about what happens next – or, just as often, what happened before. It’s surprisingly hard to put down, in fact. You probably never thought that a book about conjoined twins could be a page-turner. Then again, The Girls isn’t really a book about conjoined twins.



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