Sunday, 21 September 2008

The Girls by Lori Lansens

The groupie who chose The Girls for our September book group meeting said she did so because the novel is, in her opinion, an amazing feat of imagination. And very well written too. Like the subject or not, there can be few who dispute either of these statements.

Rose and Ruby are born naturally but emerged joined at the head. Their teenage mother – who must have been in a terrible state after such a birth – disappears and the saintly nurse, Lovey, who delivered them, wins guardianship. With her Slovakian husband, Stash, she raises them on her Ontario farm to live as independent and normal a life as is possible.

A potential reader could be forgiven for wondering:
a. Who wants to read about craniopagus twins
b. Do I want to read what can only be a heart-rending and possibly mawkish story
c. Can such an extraordinary tale end in anything but grief.
I know I thought these things.

But Lori Lansens manages to pull it off: the story begins when the girls are 29 years old, and Rose (the clever one) about to start her autobiography. She convinces Ruby (the pretty one) to write her side of the story too and this is the way the novel is structured: Rose’s romantic chapters interspersed now and then with Ruby’s down-to-earth ones.

The twins share a major artery and can never be separated. Rose has to carry her sister on her hip making Ruby appear to be more reliant on Rose than vice versa. But Lansens manages to convey how much the girls rely on each other - spiritually as well as physically - and how both have to compromise to survive life as a conjoined twin. Eventually, the weaker of the twins emerges as the stronger.

The theme of the novel could be seen to be all about connections and dependency: that of Rose and Ruby is of course obvious but there is also their dependency and connection to Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash, and theirs for each other; their neighbour Mrs Merkel and her lost son Larry, Stash and his lost family in Slovakia, their ‘cousin’ Nick and the girls.

Lansens throws in some surprising – and not altogether successful extras – Rose has a child and Stash takes the family to a weird family gathering in Slovakia; Mrs Merkel and Stash have an affair. And when the character Nick – a useless ex-con – undergoes a complete character change when he begins to care for the twins it seems a rather obvious tale of rehabilitation.

But Lansens manages to convey that Rose and Ruby, with their separate brains, personalities, interests and views are like any pair of sisters could be. And what she also convinces us of is the deep love they have for each other, for their adoptive parents, the parents love for the girls and the deep feelings they all have of belonging and caring for the landscape they live in.

Soon we are convinced that the lives of these conjoined twins are lives that have been worth the living, that pity is not part of it and that humour, love and achievement is. It is, finally, a difficult book to put down.


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