Sunday, November 8, 2009
Chang and Eng
Read this book: Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss. It's one of the best books I've read in a long time. It's about a pair of conjoined twins, the ones from whom the term Siamese twins comes from. It takes place during the 1800s and goes back in forth in time from thier birth and childhood and when they are older and living in North Carolina. It's based on a true story and the main events are true, but it's a fictionalized account of their lives. It's told through the perspective of Eng. It's beautifully written, and I can't believe it was Strauss's first novel. The characters are wonderfully drawn, and he clearly separates the characters of Chang and Eng. He really makes you picture what life would be like with no privacy, to always have someone attached to you. Eng tends to retreat into his mind, I think because that's the one place he can be alone. I found it interesting that a third character seemed to appear between them, the band that connects them. It almost took on a life of it's own, made a third character of Chang-and-Eng in addition to the two separate characters.
Strauss starts with a compelling story. I've always been fascinated by and somewhat repulsed by conjoined twins. I feel bad saying that and I hate that people mistreated conjoined twins as monsters, but it just seems so wrong. I think it's also just something people don't like to think about because we can't imagine having to go through life like that. I was amazed at how strong Eng remained though, although Chang's tendency to turn toward drink is understandable as well.
I thought it was amazing that while the boys were taken by the King of Siam and used as entertainment, and eventually sold to an American to use for shows, they were never actually part of a circus, not for lack of trying on P.T. Barnum's part though. They still have both inner and outer battles over maintaining their dignity as they perform though. The later parts of the book take place against the backdrop of the War of Yankee Agression (I can't believe Strauss referred to it that way!), which highlighted Chang and Eng's own personal civil war against each other later in life. How can you not grow to resent this person who is always there, not just looking over your shoulder but practically attached to it? But as their mom says, how can you fight with someone you're physically attached to? That would be madness.
Eng also has internal battles over marriage and love. He believes it will never happen for them, but then they meet two sisters in North Carolina. The book covers the logistics of the marital bed and how awkward that is when there's a third person literally in bed with you that you're trying to pretend isn't there.
As someone who desparately needs her alone time, I cannot fathom having someone attached to me at all times. It's actually that thought that makes it hard for me to want children. But Strauss did an incredible job of creating this story and making feel like I was Eng for a time. He transported me into the mind of a Siamese conjoined twin man in the 1800s. That's impressive. So, you should absolutely go read this book. I can't wait to pick up his other two books.
Also, this books gets to count for one of my reading challenges! It has a proper name and is worth 5 points in the four-month reading challenge.