3rd December is the International Day of People with Disability, and the theme for 2014 is “The promise of technology”. People with physical disabilities were historically seen as outsiders, and those with the rarest disabilities were sometimes exploited in “freakshows” or even by their doctors. Modern medical and assistive technologies now allow many disabled people to access the same education as non-disabled people. In The Girls by Lori Lansens (NORFOLK HOUSE LIBRARY 823.92 LAN) freakshows are a thing of the past, but Rose Darlens is unable to study writing due to her very unusual situation.
Rose is joined at the head to her sister Ruby. It’s hard work reconciling their personalities- Ruby, who loves TV and local history, won’t agree to move to University so Rose can study writing. But Rose is strongly encouraged by her adoptive family and starts her autobiography at 29, when she and Ruby become the longest-living craniophagus twins in history.
Rose starts with the story of the twins’ birth, and the doctors who wanted to study their disability. She explains that her body was in proportion when she was a baby, but her spine has curved as she has carried her sister for most of their lives. Ruby has a very small body and lots of stomach problems that make it hard for the family to travel far. But Ruby can speak clearly, whereas Rose’s mouth is obscured. Rose sees herself as the ‘ugly twin’, who has to fight even harder than Ruby to make people listen to her and see her as an individual.
Ruby’s half of the story is much more frank. She doesn’t want to be a writer like her sister, and avoids sentimental or poetic language. She starts to write when the doctor tells her a swollen vein in Rose’s head might kill them both- she has to help her sister finish her story! Ruby describes the parts of Rose’s life that Rose has artfully left out, and as her sister grows obsessive, writing through the night despite her headache, Ruby carefully plans their last six months together. She introduces us to her friends at the local library, where the twins first saw a photograph of famous “Siamese” twins Chang and Eng. One librarian has a son with cerebral palsy, and encourages Ruby to read to the children at story-time. When Rose has to give up shelving at the library due to the twins’ health, Ruby’s job reminds both sisters of their role in the local community.
The Girls isn’t an ‘inspirational’ story (these often infuriate disabled people!) but it’s far from a traditional autobiography. The novel refuses to stick to one timeline, and each sister has her own version of events. Despite this, the twins seem so real it’s hard to believe this isn’t true! The book gets really interesting when Ruby gets involved, and the reader starts to wonder if Rose has been telling the whole truth. This is a book for people who like secrets- but don’t expect everything to be revealed.
If you liked The Girls, try:
The Rough Guide to Canada (BOOK ZONE 917.104) and Feasts: Food for sharing from Central and Eastern Europe (BOOK ZONE 641.5943) should help set the scene on Aunt Lovey’s farm, where the Darlen twins celebrate their uncle’s Slovakian heritage with delicious home-cooked food.
The Theory of Everything, released in cinemas in January 2015, is the story of Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist who was diagnosed with a form of motor-neurone disease during his final year at Cambridge University. The film focusses on his friendships at college (at 17, Hawking was younger but much more intelligent than his classmates!) and his first wife Jane, an Arts student. Books about Hawking’s big bang theory are on display in the Information Store from 1rd till 12th December.
Seen But Seldom Heard is a project launched by Bournemouth University as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Watch young poets perform their work on disability here: https://microsites.bournemouth.ac.uk/seen-but-seldom-heard/performance-clips/