Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
In the novel The Girls by Lori Lansens we follow the lives of craniopagus conjoined twins Rose and Ruby. Lansens succeeds in the incredibly difficult task of creating not just 1 but 2 complex, interesting, believable and captivating central protagonists. Rose is an aspiring author with several published poems and short stories and she decided to write her autobiography after receiving important news . She realized that she couldn’t write such a thing without the input from her conjoined twin so this is the fictionalized autobiography of both twins. Ruby is not a reader or writer so she is initially a reluctant participant in the process but she soon comes to enjoy the writing process and it is through Ruby that we find out the reason why Rose embarked on the writing project. The chapters narrated by Ruby are written in diary entry format and printed in a different font and easily distinguishable in tone from Rose’s more literary contributions.
Rose and Ruby are joined at the head and share a crucial artery but have separate brains. Ruby has foreshortened legs and has club feet so she relies on Rose to carry her around. The girls are born in a small town outside Toronto, Canada, in the midst of a tornado and abandoned by their unwed teenage mother two weeks later. The girls are raised by the nurse ‘Aunt’ Lovey, who refuses to see them as deformed or even disabled and her Slovakian husband (‘Uncle’ Stash). Lovey and Stash provide a stable and loving home for the girls as they grow to adulthood. Showing both linguistic skill and a gift for observation, Lansens’s Rose evokes country life, including descriptions of snow, Autumn, Spring, corn, crows, coming-of age including orgasms, longing, and the fire of a first kiss and rapid physical decline including the onset of blindness (the Autumn leaves turn grey). Rose shares her darkest memories (sex without explicit consent and public humiliation in Uncle Stash’s hometown) and her deepest regrets (never getting to know her mother or daughter), while Ruby, the pretty twin offers critical details, such as what prompted Rose to write their life story.
Through their alternating narratives, Lansens captures a contradictory longing for independence and togetherness. It’s very interesting to read about the same events written as often conflicting memories of both girls even though they are conjoined and therefore had essentially the same physical experiences. The reflections offered by Ruby are often more pragmatic than Rose’s and challenge the reader’s assumption that because Ruby doesn’t perform well at school, is pretty and physically deformed that she will be the less thoughtful and perceptive of the twins.
There are sweet moments, like when the girls tug on each other’s earlobes to say goodnight or I love you. Rose loves sport and sits in the shed with Uncle Stash watching games while he drinks peevo (Slovak for beer). Ruby (obviously sits with them but has no interest in sport) is focussed on collecting archaeological artefacts left by indigenous people where the family now farms (obviously it’s Rose that walks around the fields carrying Ruby while Ruby looks for artefacts). Ruby’s huge collection of artefacts is so significant that it is housed in special cabinets in the local museum. The girls eventually get jobs at the local library and make a few friends. Everyone stares at them but they are not persecuted. Both develop crushes on men, just like physically normal girls. Ruby gets to enjoy passionate kisses with a deplorable teenager (Frankie Foyle) and Rose feels left out because no-one has ever shown any interest in her sexually. Finally at the end of the book Rose makes an unlikely link and falls in love with a surprisingly caring and tender ex-c0n named Nick.
One significant section of the novel takes place in Uncle Stash’s home village in Slovakia. For me this section was particularly poignant because there were aspects that reminded me of the village in Poland that my grandfather comes from. The craniopagus twins are accepted into the extended family in Slovakia without question even though they arrived with Uncle Stash unannounced and they are not blood relations. When my husband and I met my extended family in Poland in 2005 my grandfather (through my uncle) had only just revisited his village for the first time in 60 years and discovered family we didn’t know existed. When we arrived we were met with love and acceptance that we didn’t know could exist and this is what Rose and Ruby encounter as well. A lot of the food and drinks associated with Uncle Stash are familiar and dear to me as well through my relatively new-found Polish family. Unfortunately the trip is marred for Rose and Ruby a strange and disturbing experience with superstitious women from the village.
I enjoyed the book and tried to make opportunities to read it in between myriad other time demands. Towards the end of the novel I noticed that Rose’s writing style deteriorated and I don’t know if that was deliberate because Rose was severely weakened in health and strength or if Lansens rushed the end of the book. There were also surprising inconsistencies in the final chapter of the book. Rose has just told us that she is blind and was unable to see the face of their childhood neighbour when she stood directly in front of Rose that day, yet she talks of re-reading sections of her book (perhaps she means using a text to speech software?) and she talks of Nick looking straight into her eyes but surely she couldn’t have known where he was looking. Also, Ruby tells us previously that Rose can’t bear having the light on so they have to use candles instead yet in the closing chapter Rose talks of Nick leaving the light on while kissing her.
I’ve never looked into my sister’s eyes, but I’ve seen inside her soul. I have never worn a hat, but I have been kissed like that. I have never raised both arms at once, but the moon beguiled me still. Sleep is for suckers… And though I’ve never climbed a tree, I’ve scaled a mountain, and that’s a hell of a thing.
I’m often perplexed when I find myself stuck in ‘conversation’ with people who are only willing to skim the surface of life and refuse to think deeply or question the ridiculous clichés that dominate our culture. Usually I avoid popular culture and as a result I am ill-equipped (and possibly intellectually incapable) of participating in small talk. That’s mostly why I kept to myself on all but 1 of 12 flights on my recent trip. I’ve had some fantastic conversations on flights and made some firm friends with intellectual equals but these are fluke encounters. This quote by Ruby about Rose (an aspiring author) is amusing and I’m sure would apply to me:
I hate when Rose talks the way she writes. She can sound so pretentious.
After travelling through South America last week I was infected with FIFA World Cup fever, so I’ve joined my office competition with relish. This weekend among social engagements our family have watched 3 games using SBS TV On Demand and the highlights of the other games. For each game we have donned football shirts we’ve collected from Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Australia and Malaysia. For a family that doesn’t have a TV and is infamous for always being busy this is an unusual but relaxing use of time. This quote by Ruby about her sister Ruby is amusing and I’m sure would resonate with many people who find me impossible to converse with. For a period of 4 weeks I will be able to talk about sport and perhaps be more interesting to people who otherwise find me pretentious!
Nick and Rose talk about sports too, which I prefer to the discussions about books and authors, which make them sound pretentious. At least when they discuss sports, they have passion and original opinions.