Author, Book review, Books in translation, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Fiction, Germany, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Twins’ by Dirk Kurbjuweit

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 155 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Imogen Taylor.

Literature has long been fascinated by twins, but this German novella, first published in 2001 and translated into English in 2017, gives the topic an unusual twist.

In this fable-like tale, “twins” Johann and Ludwig are not related, they are simply childhood friends who forge a strong bond in the belief that this will make them more synchronised as rowers and therefore more successful in competition. Their aim is to beat their rivals, the Potsdam twins, in the coxless pairs.

But the rowing contest is not really the focus of this coming of age story. It’s really about friendship and how bonds can be broken just as easily as they can be made. And it’s about what happens when you keep secrets from one another and don’t show your true self.

Schoolboy friendship

Johann and Ludwig first meet at school when they are 11 years old. The story is told from Johann’s perspective as a 16-year-old looking back on past events. He’s a shy, introverted boy. He’s astonished when Ludwig strikes up a friendship by inviting him to stay over on the first day they meet.

Ludwig lives in a house near a notoriously dangerous overhead traffic bridge from which people jump when they wish to commit suicide. These people often land in Ludwig’s garden and he’s intrigued by their lifeless bodies, often sitting with them until the authorities arrive.

The bridge looms large in this fast-paced story. Ludwig, the more bullish and extroverted of the pair, often challenges Johann to run across the bridge, dodging the traffic, or to climb the fence from which the suicides jump. This teaches Johann to confront his fears, to try new things, to win the approval of his new friend.

Over time the pair become closer and closer, adopting each other’s looks and mannerisms.

From then on I went home only to sleep, and sometimes not even that. We spent almost every waking moment together, watching TV, playing the same computer games, reading the same books, eating the same size servings of the same meals, and sharing all our thoughts.

In their teens, they even share the same “girlfriend” (Josefine, who they sleep with) and work on the same project: to repair an old motorbike which they can then ride together, albeit unlicensed.

But for all their closeness, their shared time together in class, at home and in the rowing contests, there are some things that cannot be shared and which will eventually tear them apart.

SPOILER ALERT

The chief secret is Johann’s growing friendship with Ludwig’s older sister, Vera. The pair conduct a clandestine sexual relationship, meeting up at night in the motorbike workshop under the bridge for romantic rendezvous. It is this liaison that eventually tests the real bond between the two teenage “twins”.

END OF SPOILER ALERT

I quite liked this story, which is written in stripped-back prose and drips with melancholia. It reminded me a lot of Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s work (all reviewed here) in both style — that subtle prose and the aching atmosphere it evokes — and substance. But there is a thriller-like edge to it which gives Twins a compelling, page-turning quality. In its exploration of moral codes, male friendship, violence, sex and suicide, it’s a lot heftier than its slim page count might suggest.

There is an unexpected twist at the end, which makes the reader reassess the entire story and leaves a memorable impression — not bad for a book that can easily be read in a couple of hours.

 

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Heather O'Neill, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘The Girl Who Was Saturday Night’ by Heather O’Neill

The-girl-who-was-saturday-night

Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 416 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s Giller Prize season and, once again, thanks to the kind invitation of KevinfromCanada, I’m taking part in the Shadow Giller Jury for the fourth time. (You can find out more about the jury at Kevin’s blog.)

The longlist was announced last week. It featured many authors who were unfamiliar to me, but I was aware of Heather O’Neill, whose second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, was on the list. I had previously enjoyed her debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, which I read in 2008.

A Bohemian coming-of-age story

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is set in the bohemian quarter of Montreal during the 1995 Referendum. The story is told through the eyes of 19-year-old Nouschka Tremblay, whose life changes dramatically over the course of the novel: she begins night school, leaves home, marries a schizophrenic and falls pregnant. She also — rather unexpectedly — meets her long-lost mother for the first time since she was a little girl.

It is, essentially, a coming-of-age tale, but it’s not your usual run-of-the-mill one. For a start, Nouschka has an unbreakable bond with her twin brother, Nicolas, whom she loves and loathes in equal measure.  The pair still live at home with the elderly grandfather, Loulou, who raised them. They even share a bed (aged 19, remember), but have spectacular yelling matches and physical punch-ups, often in public view.

The thing is that Nicolas and I were afraid to be without each other. And whenever you are dependent on someone, then you naturally start to resent them. Everybody is born with an inkling, a desire to be free.

And that desire to be free is one of the key themes of this novel: Nouschka craves it, but is also terrified by it. Despite being raised in a relatively Bohemian household and working a full-time job (in a magazine shop since leaving school aged 16), she hasn’t really grown up and is very much repressed by her father’s fame.

Her father, Etienne Tremblay, was a famous Québécois folk singer in the early 1970s with a knack for writing witty songs (apparently their humour made up for his inability to keep a tune). He took Nouschka and Nicolas on stage and television chat shows with him all the time and made them “wave wildly at the audience and blow kisses and say adorable things that he’d written”. Now, 15 years later, the twins are still recognised on the street, which keeps them unwittingly trapped in roles they should have long grown out of.

When the pair eventually meet the mother who walked out on them, Nouschka suddenly realises that the kind of fame they’ve “enjoyed” has never filled the mother-shaped hole in their lives.

Nicolas and I immediately shot a knowing, wary glance at one another. She had loved us on television. The same way that everybody had loved us, which was the same thing as not loving us at all. We had had enough of that type of affection. What we needed was a love that was able to shine a light on who exactly we were, so that we could be people offstage. Then we would be able to be real. Then we would be able to grow up. Then we wouldn’t be joined at the hip. This woman only knew what everybody else knew about us. Of course she loved our persona. It was designed to be loved.

This may partly explain why Nouschka sleeps around — often with much older men — and marries the first person her age who asks her.

Colourful characters

Admittedly, I initially struggled to get into this story, perhaps because the characters, who are all exceptionally well drawn, felt almost too ludicrous and “unreal” to be true. But before long I got completely caught up in Nouschka’s funny little life — her dramas, her fears, her complicated relationships — and found myself warming to her, even though I didn’t always agree with the decisions she made.

Unfortunately, the narrative drags a little in places — it could easily lose 100 pages and I’m sure the story would be all the stronger for it. But I did love the backdrop of the Québécois search for a kind of freedom of their own (the irony of reading it while the Scottish Referendum was being held wasn’t lost on me), which gave the story an added depth.

The prose style, which is straightforward and “clean”, occasionally feels a little pedestrian, for want of a better word, but then O’Neill has a habit of dropping in a line or two that makes you sit up and take notice, such as:

He was running in and out of doors like a ball in a pinball machine, waking people up.

And:

White round petals were all over the ground as if the polka dots had fallen off a woman’s dress.

Needs time to settle

I actually think this is one of those books that needs time to “settle” after you’ve read it, because in thinking about this novel (which I finished five days ago) it’s already grown fonder in my mind.

It’s very much a book about parental responsibilities and our desire to be loved by our mothers and our fathers, even if they are not present in our lives. While it is important to forge our own path in life, it’s always helpful to have parents show us the way. (Or, as Nouschka so eloquently puts it, mothers are “like North Stars that guide you when you are completely lost”.)

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night might not be an obvious prize-winner, but I admired its kookiness, its themes, and its crazy little characters. It might be depressing in places — when Nicolas loses custody of his own child there’s a very real sense of history repeating itself, for instance — but it ends on a surprisingly upbeat note, which makes one feel that Nouschka’s struggles might have been worth it after all.

Author, Book review, England, Marjorie Wallace, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, UK, Vintage, Wales

‘The Silent Twins’ by Marjorie Wallace

Silent-twins

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 304 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I first remember reading about identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons when I was a teenager. They were featured in an article in Reader’s Digest magazine (my parents were subscribers), which explained that the girls did not communicate with the outside world because they had developed their own private language.

A complicated history

The Silent Twins, first published in 1986, updated in 1998 and reissued in 2008, explores June and Jennifer’s complicated history. It is written by an investigative journalist, Marjorie Wallace, who founded the mental health charity SANE on the back of her experiences writing articles on schizophrenia for The Times.

In fact, after years of incarceration — the sisters were sentenced to Broadmoor after going on a five-week crime spree when they were teenagers — both June and Jennifer were diagnosed as schizophrenic. Wallace, who befriended the girls as part of her research for this book, argues otherwise.

The label seems to fit awkwardly the profound and complex problems of their twinship. […] I have met many people with schizophrenia and have read many of their letters and writings. In the million or more words written by the twins I read in preparing this book, I have not yet found any sign of the fragmentation of thought so typical of this illness. Nor do the twins appear to suffer the more florid symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hearing voices. In any of my conversations with them I did not feel the fundamental disintegration of personality; or those moments of vacancy which can make communication so difficult. The twins are certainly not normal. They do suffer from feelings of paranoia — the people are watching them or reading their minds, one of the symptoms of schizophrenia. But how much was that paranoia an extension of their own experience of reading each other’s mind and their jealous vigilance over each other?

Alas, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you a bit about the twins when they were youngsters and what made them so unusual.

Identical twin girls

They were born in 1963 to a West Indian couple, where they were brought up on an RAF base in Wales (their father was a technician in the RAF). But from the age of three the girls rejected communication with everyone around them — they would only talk to each other, and even then it was in a soft but high-pitched voice in a private language no one else could understand.

Because of this, they lacked social skills and failed at school (they weren’t sent to a special school until they were 14, by which time it was too late). The older they got, the more private — and reclusive — they became. By the time they were 16, they’d dropped out of school, were living on benefits and rarely left the bedroom they shared with a younger sister. Most of their time was spent writing purple-prosed novels, which they would send off to be published by a vanity press.

But when editorial success eluded them they decided to seek their fame and fortune in other less legal ways: they went on a five-week crime spree involving petty thieving, breaking-and-entering, and arson. They were caught and sentenced for an unlimited period to Broadmoor, the only facility prepared to accept them.

Wallace charts the girls’ lives from birth until their release from Broadmoor in 1993.

Diaries reveal their secret lives

Throughout their teenage years and beyond, the girls kept incredibly detailed diaries to which Wallace had access. These show that they were intelligent and that they cared deeply for their parents and siblings, even though they were unable to show emotion and unwilling to communicate with them.

And it reveals how they made a childhood pact to only communicate with one another, often through the subtle use of body language or eye contact. The pact became so all-consuming they were never able to break out of it.

What emerges is a powerful study of two siblings caught in a peculiar bond in which they loved and hated each other in equal measure — when they were separated, which the psychiatrists would do as part of their “treatment”, they pined for each other to the point of illness, but thrust back together they would fight violently, tear their hair and scratch each other’s faces.

Truth is stranger than fiction

The book is written in an easy-to-read narrative style and there were times when I had to remind myself it was not fiction. Truth can, at times, be stranger than fiction, and no more so than the case of The Silent Twins. It’s a compelling and tragic tale.

You can find out more about June and Jennifer Gibbons via this Wikipedia entry — but be warned, it does contain plot spoilers.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Patrick White, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Solid Mandala’ by Patrick White

SolidMandala 

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 316 pages; 1977.

In Jungian psychology a mandala is a symbol that represents the effort to reunify the self.

In Patrick White‘s novel twin brothers, Arthur and Waldo Brown, cannot seem to reconcile the fact that they once shared a womb, the two of them being so different in temperament and personality. And yet, there’s a strange kind of reliance on one another, especially in old age, when the two share a bed and often walk about town holding hands.

Even their lack-lustre love lives (neither of them get married) are remarkably similar, when, as teenagers, they both fall for Dulcie Feinstein and then, as adults, when they strike up a close friendship with their neighbour, Mrs Poulter.

But despite their differences and their tendency to secretly loathe one another, they cannot escape their lifelong familial bond. It is their ongoing struggle to find a balance between intimacy and independence that marks the lives of these two very different men.

Arthur, the older of the two, is good-natured, if a little simple, and is content with his lot in life, working as an assistant to Mr Allwright, the grocer. But Waldo, the bookish one who works in a library, has literary aspirations and thinks himself superior to most people but lacks the confidence to chase his dreams.

First published in 1966, The Solid Mandala is Patrick White’s seventh novel (he wrote 12 in total, along with two short story collections, a memoir and a bunch of plays) and is set in Sydney, Australia, in the early part of the 20th century.

The Browns are recently arrived immigrants from England and the twins are already marked out as different by the mere fact that the family refuses to go to church like every other good Australian citizen. This effectively sets a pattern for the rest of their lives, because neither Waldo or Arthur ever really fit in. Even as retired gentlemen their appearance on the street, walking their dogs and holding hands, causes a stir.

“I never saw two men walkin’ hand in hand,” Mrs Dun murmured.

“They are old.” Mrs Poulter sighed. “I expect it helps them. Twins too.”

“But two men!”

“For that matter I never saw two grown women going hand in hand.”

The Solid Mandala follows the day-to-day lives — from cradle to grave — of these seemingly unremarkable men. Both twins have a chapter each in which to narrate the story. This makes the relatively drab subject matter come alive by showing how alternative perspectives on the same events and incidences can be vastly different from one person to another and how those said perspectives are coloured by individual prejudices, personalities and beliefs.

Ruthless and brutal in places, the prose is also illuminated by White’s distinctive literary flourishes — the tendency to drop punctuation when he wants to convey a character’s excitement, for example — and wonderfully descriptive passages about Australian life and landscapes:

It was really the grass that had control at Sarsaparilla, deep and steaming masses of it, lolling yellow and enervated by the end of summer. As for the roads, with the exception of the highway, they almost all petered out, first in dust, then in paddock, with dollops of brown cow manure — or grey spinners — and the brittle spires of seeded thistles.

There is much grace and beauty here and plenty of laughs, but in places I felt overwhelmed by the sadness that effuses the story, the sense of loss and regret and the inability to escape the past and to truly grasp life by the horns. And the near-perfect ending, I have to say, came as somewhat of a shock, so much so it’s taken me a month to write this review, because I wanted to think about this book before I put pen to paper.

Ultimately, The Solid Mandala is a very human book about how two people living one life can grow apart but never grow away from each other. I very much enjoyed it.