Thursday, 8 April 2010

Book review: Lori Lansen's 'The girls'

This will be an unusual book review, for I listened to this story rather than read it. I have got into the habit of listening to the radio when I walk; I shudder to think how many thousands of hours of Radio 4 and 5 I subjected my ears to during my coastal walk. Added to this were tapes of Simon Schama's 'A history of Britain', which I bought in Cornwall and listened to many times as I strolled along.Since then I have got into a rather ecletic mix of podcasts and audio books, although music still makes an appearance.

One of the books I got out of the library was an audio recording of Lori Lansen'sbook, 'The Girls'. I had not heard of it, and only vaguely knew the author's name. I knew little of what to expect from this random pick.
I started listening as I was heading out of Marlborough on the Wessex Ridgeway; by the top of the first hill I was sobbing my eyes out. The beginning - in fact the entire first CD - is incredibly powerful, and a masterclass of how to write eloquent, almost lyrical prose. I listened for the entirity of that day's walk, on the journey home and for pretty much all of yesterday and today.

The book tells the story of two Canadian conjoined craniopagus twins, Rose and Ruby Darlen. It is written in an autobiographical form, mostly by Rose, with some additions of Ruby's interspersed.

It would be easy for a book about this disability to be mawkishly sentimental; even exploitative. Yet Lori Lansen avoids these traps with surprising ease. For one thing Rose and Ruby never seem to revel in self-pity; their lives are shown as being rich and fulfilling despite - or perhaps because of - their condition.

Additionally, the two girls are shown as having two very different characters: Rose, the larger of the two, is bookish and wants to be a writer; Ruby, the smaller, more beautiful and sickly sister, has a knack of finding Indian artefacts on the rural farm where they live.They are as different as any two sisters you can imagine, yet are forced to live a mutually dependent life. In places I started to imagine that Rose and Ruby were two seperate women, only for a sentence to act as a jolting reminder of their permanent link. They often tell the same tale from different perspectives, each sister giving her unique perspective on the important events of their lives.

The twins are abandoned at birth (it is never fully clear what happens to their mother) and adopted by a childless couple, a nurse called Lovey and her Slovakian husband, Stash. The book is as much theirs as the girls, detailing how they first met and fell in love, and how the adoption of Rose and Ruby completes their lives.

As the girls grow up they get a job in the local library, with Rose sorting and stacking books half the time whilst Ruby reads to children for the other half. The total acceptance by the local community of their condition is heartening. They even fall in love, although the affair has some heartbreaking consequences. The familiar, usual events of life are told from the girls' unique perspectives.

The story of their lives drew me in, encompassing me with its warmth. Only one part of the book failed to maintain the high standard - the adult girls take a trip to Slovakia with their aunt and uncle, and this whole section felt out of place and unnecessary, a jarring chapter in what is essentially a Canadian tale.

It is interesting to think about why this book had such a significant emotional effect on me; it was the first book to make me cry since Audrey Niffenegger's 'The Time Traveller's Wife'. I am unsure if reading it would have had the same effect, but the woman reading the audio book - Sarah Mennell - did a superb job, giving all the characters different voices. Her reading swept me away. It would be interesting to read the book to see if it had the same effect.

It was a particularly difficult topic for a writer to tackle, and Lori Lansen utterly succeeded in creating a non-exploitative, endearing and tender story. I would award this utterly satisfying audio book 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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