The Girls: Lori Lansens

★★★★

Rose and Ruby Darlen have grown up in the small town of Leaford in Baldoon County, Ontario. Despite being twins, they’ve always striven to be different, refusing to wear the same clothes and cultivating different hobbies. Rose loves books, writing, and watching sports. Ruby is the pretty one, interested in magazines and TV, but also obsessed with the history and artefacts of the Neutral Nation peoples who once lived in their area. The girls’ lives have been simple: they grew up with their Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash in a big old farmhouse on the outskirts of town and now share a bungalow in Leaford itself. In many ways they are perfectly ordinary. And yet, in one of the most significant ways, they are utterly extraordinary. For Rose and Ruby are craniopagus conjoined twins, joined at the skull. And as the book begins, they are twenty-nine: if they can only reach thirty, they will be the oldest living pair of craniopagus twins (not actually true: see penultimate paragraph). Taking it in turns, they embark on a joint memoir (Ruby being somewhat coerced into it) and Lansens’s absorbing, beautifully-crafted novel draws us into their remarkable lives.

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.

The Darlen girls have inevitably become celebrities in Leaford; part of the local mythology. But, in this small town where people have watched them grow up, they’re free of the kind of intrusive interest they might face in larger, more sensationalist cities. Their devoted Aunt Lovey has fiercely raised them to do as much as they can, flying in the face of medical opinion. Having been told the girls would never walk, she painstakingly trains them to do so – Rose, whose legs are longer, learning to carry Ruby whose underdeveloped legs rest on her hip. She sends them to the local school, takes them to the local library (where, as adults, they get jobs) and encourages them in every possible way to think of themselves as independent, fully capable young women. And they are independent: in taste, in spirit and in character. The only things that binds them is their love for once another – a genuine, deep affection – and the developmental hiccup that has left them permanently fused – in a way that defies separation, since vital blood vessels are wound together in a complex web between their brains.

Their autobiography is Rose’s idea. Technically, Rose wants it to be her autobiography, but she accepts Ruby’s point that the circumstances make it difficult for it to be solely about Rose, and shouldn’t Ruby have a say? So Rose takes on the bulk of the chapters and Ruby is expected to supply her own viewpoints – both of them having sworn not to read what the other has written. Rose has imposed a deadline: she wants everything finished before Christmas, and so she gets started on her laptop (having learned to type one-handed with her left hand), while Ruby scrawls on yellow legal pads with her right hand: texts that are then typed up by a friend of theirs from work. As the two sets of chapters come together, we learn how these two children, born in traumatic circumstances, have grown into generous, loving, hopeful young women – whose opinions might not always coincide, but who have been forced to learn difficult lessons about compromise. We also learn that Rose may not have been entirely honest with us about her decision to write this memoir, as Ruby’s interventions shift the perspective on sections we’ve already read and bring a deeply poignant issue to the fore.

I must stress how much I enjoyed the book. Lansens has clearly done a lot of research, so that Rose’s and Ruby’s discussions of their condition feel absolutely plausible, and yet the amount of medical technicality is just right. For the sisters, being conjoined is a necessary evil but it doesn’t get in the way of things like growing up, having crushes, or following beloved sports teams. This is a story about growing up, coming to terms with who you are, and facing the choices that ultimately make you an adult. It’s also a story about family: the bonds that, in this case literally, can never be broken; and the bonds that we choose to form ourselves. At many points it is deeply sad; and yet it’s miles away from the mawkish tearjerker it could so easily have become in less judicious hands. Alongside the moments of tragedy, there are many flashes of humour, because Rose and Ruby are essentially just two Canadian girls trying to make sense of small-town life, and adolescence can make idiots of all of us. The whole novel is perfectly balanced in tone, and written with a heightened awareness of contextual detail that helps to bring Leaford and its residents to life. Not to mention the presence of two distinct but equally appealing narrative voices, as the two sisters’ recollections weave a picture of their memories and then spiral out to record the histories, happiness and sorrows of those they love.

Would I have consciously gone out looking for a story about Canadian conjoined twins? Certainly not. I’d have expected such a book to be sensationalist and perhaps even exploitative. Am I glad to have picked this up in Oxfam in Winchester nine months ago? Undoubtedly. Even if Ruby and Rose were non-conjoined, average, everyday twins, I would have thoroughly enjoyed reading about their day-to-day teenage struggles to define their identity and their independence. Such experiences are universal, even if this particular context is not. As for that medical context, it was completely fascinating, since it goes without saying that I knew nothing about craniopagus conjoined twins beforehand, and learned a great deal. I should stress that Rose and Ruby are fictional – Leaford itself is fictional – and I’m not aware that Lansens interviewed any conjoined twins in her preparation for the novel, but nevertheless this story has a deeply compelling resonance, a kind of authenticity, that leaves you feeling privileged to have glimpsed another way of life. Interestingly, since finishing the book, I’ve found out that the girls won’t actually become the oldest living pair of craniopagus twins on turning thirty, because that honour belongs to Lori and George Schappell, born in 1961, still going strong, and apparently even more creatively dynamic than Rose and Ruby. You can read an interesting interview with them from 1997 in The New York Times (when George, who has since declared himself transgender, was still going by the name Reba).

Recommended, and specifically urged on those who wouldn’t normally read a book like this. An illuminating little Canadian treasure.

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