The Girls

by Lori Lansens

Published by Knopf Canada

457 pages, 2005

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Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


Rose and Ruby Darlen are craniopagus twins born joined at the head in 1974. Their young, unmarried mother abandoned them as quickly as possible, but the nurse in attendance at their birth stepped in quickly to adopt the conjoined twins. In her 50s, childless and married to a gentle immigrant, she quickly undertook the challenge.

When the book begins, "the girls" are 29 and the oldest surviving craniopagus twins in the world. At its end they have entered but are unlikely to leave, their 30th year. Ruby is suffering more and more health problems. She's unsteady on her feet, suffers horrific headaches and is slowly going blind due to an aneurysm which is threatening to take the lives of both sisters at any time.

Ruby and Rose draw on a common blood supply: over a hundred veins as well as their skull bones are shared, making it impossible to separate them. In order to survive they must work as a team. If one dies, the other goes too.

Raise your right hand. Press the base of your palm to the lobe of your right ear. Cover your ear and fan out your fingers -- that's where my sister and I are affixed, our faces not quite side by side, our skulls fused together in a circular pattern running up the temple and curving around the frontal lobe. If you glance at us, you might think we're two women embracing ....

....I have carried my sister like an infant, since I was a baby myself. Ruby's tiny thighs astride my hip, my arm supporting her posterior, her arm forever around my neck.

Ruby and Rose live with their "Aunt" Lovey and "Uncle" Stash in a rural Ontario farming community, a small town called Leaford in the Canadian prairies where they are known to most people simply as "the girls." Here they've gone to school, held part time jobs at the local library, pursued their interests and built relationships. They've suffered the loss of both of their beloved parents and learned to live on their own, and they've moved from the country to the town. Been normal, in other words.

Lansens brings a tone of absolute authority to The Girls. The amount of research the author had to do in order to accomplish this must have been formidable. It's easy to forget that this is a work of fiction. There is such a strong sense of time and place, unfolding as we read the manuscript written by Rose, with the odd chapter by the less literary but more talented Ruby.

The former has decided to write this autobiography because of her passion for writing. Encouraged by her aunt who buys her a computer, she throws herself wholeheartedly into documenting what being inseparable has meant to her. Rose and Ruby were lucky in their upbringing. While not well off, the Darlens are a loving couple who devote their lives to their instant family, teaching the girls how live separate lives even while being conjoined. Rose is the intellectual, performing well in school, enjoying sports and dreaming of being a writer. Ruby has a keen interest in First Nation artifacts and has found many on the farm property, donating them to the local museum. She also enjoys television and believes in ghosts and reincarnation, but she's not a scholar.

By choosing to tell the story of these endearing twins through a work in progress written by both, the author reveals herself as a mistress of her craft. It's an inspired decision, allowing the story to be succinctly shown, as opposed to merely being told. By allowing both sisters to have a voice, she makes good use of dramatic irony. We read what Rose believes to be true of her sister, this soul to whom she is permanently attached, and then we are allowed to discover how wrong she is. Reading Rose's words, experiencing her struggles with literary worth and smiling at her occasionally naive but endearing posturing, we share her world in a way we otherwise never could. Not surprisingly, it is Ruby's final words to the reader that will stay with us most. "I'll miss you, and I'm not just saying that."

This is the second novel by Toronto-based Lansens. Her first, Rush Home Road, published in 2002, has been translated into eight languages. Undoubtedly this will also be the fate of The Girls. | January 2006


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.