by Lori Lansens
Canadian screenwriter Lori Lansens's best-selling first novel, Rush Home Road (2002), has been published in eleven countries and translated into eight languages. Shortlisted for the Canadian Booksellers' Association Libris Award as Fiction Book of the Year (2006), Lansens's second book, The Girls, is again set in southwestern Ontario, Canada - land of seed corn, sugar beet and winter wheat - where she was born and raised.
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.
In her opening paragraph the Los Angeles-based author entices readers into the worlds of her protagonists, Rose and Ruby Darlen. The 29-year-old sisters are the oldest surviving conjoined (Siamese) craniopagus twins. "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'."
Born in 1974, the twins' arrival into the world is heralded by a devastating tornado. Their terrified 18-year-old mother refuses to divulge her name and address on the hospital admittance form, abandoning the baby girls ten days after giving birth. The care and protection of the infants falls to their self-appointed guardian who was present at their birth: middle-aged head nurse Lovonia “Lovey” Darlen and her Slovakian husband, Stanislaus (“Uncle Stash”) take Rose and Ruby into their care.
Aunt Lovey does not want her girls to grow up amid big-town corruption and curiosity and the little family move to an insular rural community. The Darlen siblings' childhood home is a dilapidated orange brick farmhouse on Rural Route One, where the nearest neighbours are across the field and over the creek: "My sister and I were sheltered in the essence of normal. We were not hidden, but unseen."
The identical twins share skull bones, a common blood supply and enmeshed cerebral tissue. Yet they are marked by many differences: "Although we're conjoined twins, and technically have parallel vision, we don't always see eye to eye". Their thoughts are distinctly their own and they hate doing things in unison – "If we can do something alone, we usually do." They don't get tired or hungry at the same time and their tastes are poles apart. Rose is passionate about sport, loves reading and writing, and entertains an elaborate fantasy life in which she is "a singular woman". Ruby prefers schmaltzy television shows, Hollywood magazines and unearthing Indian artifacts. "Books are not my thing," she says.
The sisters are physically disparate: Rose has a normal body and what she refers to as "misshapen and frankly grotesque" features. Ruby has a beautiful face, but is unable to walk, her tiny thighs sitting astride her sister's hips, like a doll. ("Ruby is my sister. And strangely, undeniably, my child.") Rose is healthy; Ruby suffers from gastrointestinal, bowel and urinary tract problems. The girls cannot see each other, so they use mirrors. "We fight more when we don't look at each other, even if it is only through a mirror," they say. We learn that surgical separation is impossible for the twins. If one of them dies, so will the other.
Several months before their thirtieth birthday, Rose sets out to write her memoir, Autobiography of a Conjoined Twin. Ruby, feeling alienated, insists on writing some chapters from her point of view. How can a conjoined twin write the story of her life when she hasn't lived her life alone? How is it possible for one twin to write without referring to the other, asks Ruby. The sisters promise that they won't read what the other has written until the book has been completed.
The memoir begins with Rose's narrative voice:
I'm writing in the evenings. With Ruby asleep and the night still around us, with the stars in the sky, the wind kissed by leaf fires, and a chill from the open window, it's a good time to conjure. I'm filled with confidence when I begin, but by the end of a writing night I'm left to wonder if other writers feel the way I do – that with each letter, word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, I'm digging a toehold, gripping a rock, a fool on a mountainside, alone and ill-equipped, a disastrous fall more likely than a gloried ascent. Why did I start climbing? Where am I now? Who gives a shit if I reach the summit?
In the seventh chapter, the story changes to Ruby's perspective, then alternates between the sisters. The 343 page duet switches between present and past, beginning with Rose's decision to write her memoir; it then travels back to the twins' birth. Rose types on her laptop, while technophobic Ruby writes her chapters in longhand on a yellow legal pad. Different fonts are used to distinguish between their voices, although this becomes unnecessary, because the twins are so dissimilar. Rose is reflective, reticent to divulge intimate details of her life to readers. Open-hearted Ruby's prose is ingenuous and unreserved. Their voices are distinctly different and there are pages where readers have to remind themselves that the twins are joined at the head, not merely siblings.
"Only connect," urged British writer EM Forster, but imagine if, physically, you didn't have a choice. "Raise your right hand. Press the base of your palm to the lobe of your right ear. Cover your ear and fan out your fingers – that's where my sister and I are affixed, our faces not quite side by side, our skulls fused together in a circular pattern running up the temple and curving around the frontal lobe."
Lansens uses the challenging situation of craniopagus twins to explore intimately themes of interconnection, identity, dependence, privacy and impermanence, and individual expressions of love and loss. Due to their severely restricting physical existence, The Girls are forced to rely on inner substance and each other as they struggle through prejudice, sexual awakening, a teenage pregnancy, an Eastern European adventure, a love affair and, finally, their physical deterioration.
Married for many years, Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash are devoted to each other. The trajectory of the twins' story runs parallel to the childless couple's relationship – "Our story doesn't even exist without theirs." Perhaps it is the Canadian resonance - Lovey and Stash are reminiscent of a more emotionally expressive Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert from LM Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (1908). Lacking pretension, both couples have a similar straightforward approach to life often found in people who live close to the earth.
The subjectivity of memory and the writing process are also the focus of Lansens's work. "I once read some wise writer's advice that an author should clean his manuscript of blood and tears, then find the sentence that tickled him most when he wrote it down – the most lyrical line, the cleverest insight, the most potent image, the most profound conclusion – and promptly strike the words out."
How common are misconceptions about conjoined twins? Do most people consider them as anything other than an oddity of nature? That Lansens has thoroughly researched her subject matter is apparent in the meticulous attention she pays to the small, but crucial, details of her protagonists' daily lives. (How do craniopagus twins turn over in bed at night? How do they perform their daily ablutions? How does one sister kiss a lover?) The author has created a door which enables the reader to step into unfamiliar territory. She transforms twins affected by a rare and unusual medical condition into charismatic, well-loved characters, while weaving evocative descriptions of rural Canada into the 40 brief chapters which make up the novel.
There is joy and satisfaction to be found in Lansens's work; she is a talented and witty writer. Like its heroines, the novel is not grandiose or melodramatic. The author does not permit her protagonists to whine, complain or feel sorry for themselves. She skilfully creates sympathetic moments, but at the book's conclusion, it is admiration that we feel for the twins, rather than pity. Idiosyncratic and engaging, The Girls is a meditation on connections and may be aptly summed up in a line written by Rose Darlen: "Ruby and I endure because of our connectedness. Maybe we all do."