CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 2 . . . .September 15, 2006
Toronto, ON: Vintage Canada/Random House of Canada, 2006.
457 pp., pbk., $21.00.
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Darleen Golke.
I have never looked into my sister's eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I've never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I've never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I've never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I've never done, but oh, how I've been loved. And, if such things were to be, I'd live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so exponentially.
My sister, Ruby, and I, by mishap or miracle, having intended to divide from a single fertilized egg, remained joined instead, by a spot the size of a bread plate on the sides of our twin heads. We're known to the world medical community as the oldest surviving craniopagus twins (we are twenty-nine years old) and to millions around the globe, whose interest in people like us is more than just passing, as conjoined craniopagus twins Rose and Ruby Darlen of Baldoon County.
We've been called many things: freaks, horrors, monsters, devils, witches, retards, wonders, marvels. To most, we're a curiosity. In small-town Leaford, where we live and work, we're just "The Girls."
Although technically, as Ruby explains, Rose cannot write her autobiography because "she" does not exist without "them," Rose embarks on the writing project insisting Ruby contribute her perspective. Born amid the chaos and destruction of a 1974 tornado in Southern Ontario's Baldoon County to a frightened girl who refused to reveal her identity and decamped as soon as possible, conjoined craniopagus twins, Rose and Ruby Darlen, find loving parents in Lovey and Stash Darlen, a childless couple in their fifties. Lovey, the nurse who helped deliver the twins, bullies her Slovak husband into agreeing to assume responsibility for the twins and rearranges their lives to raise the girls.
Aunt Lovey "wanted more for us than just survival," Rose confides, and painstakingly taught the girls independence and acceptance. She moved them from the "tidy bungalow" in Leaford to the "old orange farmhouse that Aunt Lovey had inherited" where they thrived under her tutelage and care, "sheltered in the essence of normal." The small farm community accepted the twin's peculiar appearance whereas when they appeared in larger centers, they endured curiosity and worse. Organizing her material episodically moving between present and past, Rose combines her memories with Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash's stories to produce a remarkable tribute to the human spirit as she chronicles the twin's development through birth and early years to their teens and adulthood incorporating significant and inconsequential events to portray two women, conjoined but unique. Only when Ruby lends her perspective to the discussion does the reader learn that Rose's determination derives partially from a recent medical diagnosis with serious implications. With unconditional love, meticulous care, and attention to the multitudinous needs of conjoined twins, Lovey and Stash ensure the girls develop as normally as possible, "not hidden but not seen" as Rose cryptically observes.
Joined with "faces not quite side by side," with "skulls fused together in a circular pattern running up the temple and curving around the frontal lobe," Rose describes her features as "misshapen and frankly grotesque," but Ruby's as beautiful. Lovey strategically places mirrors throughout their home to allow the twins to see each other's faces. Rose, the fully formed twin, carries her sister whose lower body deformities mean Rose handles her "like an infant, Ruby's tiny thighs astride my hip, my arm supporting her posterior, her arm forever around my neck." However, Rose calmly affirms, "We are challenged, certainly, and uncomfortable sometimes, but neither Ruby nor I would describe our conjoinment as painful." The "girls" as the town dubs them, albeit conjoined, have separate brains, separate personalities, separate interests, separate jobs. "Our brains are separate and functioning. Our thoughts are distinctly our own. Our selves have struggled fiercely to be unique" and "we're more different than most identical twins." Joined physically, emotionally, and psychologically the girls suffer normal sibling rivalries that are revealed through the technique of using two voices in the narrative. Ruby's dozen chatty and humorous contributions are set in different font to emphasize the differences, an unnecessary feature because the voices are clearly distinct and unique.
Admitting she's scholarly, bookish, and a sports' fan, Rose describes Ruby as "girlie" and a television aficionado conveniently omitting Ruby's avid interest in the Neutral Indians of the area that results in her discovering numerous artifacts, a collection of archeological discoveries housed in the Leaford Museum, and receiving an invitation to join the Baldoon County Historical Society. Ruby reveals mundane yet vital facts that Rose neglects in her more literary account. While Rose is concrete, Ruby is spiritual believing in reincarnation, dreams, and the spirit world. Rose writes using the computer; Ruby scrawls her chatty contributions on yellow legal-sized notepads. However, Ruby's dozen chapters provide details that Rose neglects, especially about the inoperable brain aneurysm that Rose fails to mention until well into her account. Since Rose decrees neither must read the other's sections, some interesting assumptions about what the other has written emerge throughout.
The obvious difficulties of living conjoined receive matter-of-fact attention; the girls' ability to function reasonably well as independent adults, even after Lovey and Stash's deaths, remains the focus of the narrative. Surprising events like a sexual encounter and Rose's pregnancy slip smoothly into the narrative, and Lansens mainly avoids sensationalism or emphasis on the bizarre and, with the exception of the puzzling section that sees the Darlens travel to Slovakia to scatter the ashes of Stash's mother, the prose flows smoothly as she takes the girls through school,
friendships, travel, jobs, sex and childbirth, loss of loved ones, unfulfilled dreams and ambitions - in short all the usual aspects of life.
Lansens' successful first novel, Rush Home Road (2002), followed on the heels of her career as a screenwriter. A documentary about Lori and Reba Schappell, conjoined American twins, and the news story of Laleh and Laden Bijani, 29-year-old conjoined Iranian twins who died during surgical separation, encouraged Lansens to explore the idea of writing a novel about conjoined twins. In this gripping second novel, she continues the style that earned her high praise as she presents a portrait of small town life replete with well-crafted descriptions of daily "normalcies" in extraordinary situations. Meticulous detail, well-paced prose, engaging characters, gentle humour, and careful structure make the extraordinary seem ordinary. In the final chapter, Rose muses that were she to write the first chapter again, she might change it say, "I wouldn't live a thousand lives, but a million to infinity, to live the life I've lived as me." She concludes, "How lucky Ruby and I have been to be "'The Girls'."
The 450 plus page length may discourage some readers, and the final third of the novel might have benefitted from ruthless editing. However, readers who persevere will share the remarkable story of the Darlen twins who endure because of their connectedness and in spite of their limitations. Lansens successfully lulls the reader into believing that the Darlen twins are real, not mere literary creations. The novel, not surprisingly, has earned numerous accolades for its celebration of love, "connectedness," family, and community.
As a point of interest, news reports recently announced that a pregnant Vernon, BC, woman carries rare craniopagus conjoined twin girls due in 11 weeks. Conjoined twins (also called Siamese) occur about once in every 200,000 births of which only two to four percent are craniopagus; survival rates are poor, separation is extremely risky.
Darleen Golke lives and writes in Abbotsford, BC.
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