No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, May 26, 2007

#19: The Girls -- Lori Lansens

I love my sister as myself. I hate her that way too.

This is one of the best books I've read in a long time, though I didn't have high hopes of it.

It's the story of two sisters, Rose and Ruby. Imagine having a sister who's quite different to you, who doesn't always understand you, who keeps secrets from you, who fancies the same boys (though sometimes fancies men you don't especially like), who's shared every significant experience of your life and yet doesn't share your goals: imagine trying to write a book with that sister.

Now imagine that you have never been apart from that sister in your life. That you are, literally, joined -- not at the hip but at the head.

Rose and Ruby are approaching their thirtieth birthday. If they make it that far, they'll be the oldest living craniopagus twins in history. If they make it.

Rose is the literary one: Ruby's dismissive of her own writing, and her chapters make up less than a third of the narrative. (It's in a different typeface, too.) Rose is trying to tell the story of herself and her sister, and their adoptive parents, and their wider family: the mother they never knew, the nurse (Aunt Lovey) who helped deliver them and raised them as her own, her husband (Uncle Stash) and his Slovakian family, the neighbour who lost her little boy to a tornado on the day the girls were born. The small town where they grow up, find work, live their lives. The friends who help them: the doctors who keep them alive.

The Girls is not only the story of Rose and Ruby's life, but also the story of how they write that life. Though they're not reading one another's chapters as they write, Rose is suspicious of Ruby's notions of pacing: Knowing Ruby, she wouldn't have considered how to present that crucial bit of information about her main characters. And it's from Ruby that we learn some vitally important facts about Rose.

But Rose is learning how to be a writer: 'don't finish, stop'; the joy of writing something that is 'rare and imperfect', instead of yearning for perfection and polish; how it feels when it flows.

Words leak from my brain. Seep out my ear. Burble from my crooked mouth. Splash on my shirt. Trickle onto my keyboard. Pool on my warped parquet floor. At least they're not gushing from my heart. Or, God forbid, my ass. I catch the words as they fall. My hands smell. And the place is a wreck. From all our spilled words.

The story doesn't linger on the less pleasant aspects of the girls' situation, though there is mention of various medical problems (and Rose's vivid recollection of one doctor calling her sister a 'parasite'). Instead, they celebrate their difference: the almost supernatural quality of being not only twins, but two-as-one. When Ruby speaks, Rose doesn't just hear the words: she feels them in the conjoined bones of their skulls. When something falls on Rose's head, it's Ruby who's dazed. When Ruby's kissed ...

There is some alienation, of course, in being so different, but it's also been fascinating, and a unique opportunity to have observed our generation without fully participating in it.

The novel's an interesting experiment in first person plural, too -- they fiercely resist singularisation (hate being called 'a mascot') yet think of themselves as 'we'. Neither can live without the other; neither can die alone.

The Girls is a marvellous novel: deeply-felt without sentimentality, a thought-provoking description of the writing process, a love story, a tale of two sisters. Very highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I just finished this book today. It was amazing!!