Conjoined twins have long been a source of fascination, if not the subjects of disturbing scrutiny. Perhaps the most famous were Chang and Eng Bunker, who were brought from Thailand – hence “Siamese twins” – to America to be exhibited and, despite their experience of racism, later became wealthy slave owners in the antebellum south. More recently, Abby and Brittany Hensel, American sisters conjoined at the torso, have been the subject of extensive media coverage, including a reality TV show.
Kate Richards, a doctor by training, imagines the lives of two such siblings in her debut novel, Fusion. Conjoined twin sisters live with their cousin, Wren, in the Victorian alpine wilderness. Cut off from the rest of society, they are largely self-sufficient. Like the Hensels, Sea and Serene are dicephalic parapagus twins, with “two perfectly formed skulls, two minds, two hearts, two or three or four lungs – we’re not exactly sure”, but one combined torso with two arms and two legs. The descriptions of their prosaic actions – picking fruit, preparing a meal, washing their hair – though sometimes tedious in detail, underline the twins’ locomotive challenges: each controls one side of the body, with no sensation of the other, so things as quotidian as clapping or walking require co-operation.
Nuggets of Richards’ medical knowledge appear throughout, in the twins’ aptitude for first aid, and a reference to Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, with its two-volume heftiness loved and hated by doctors.
The sisters talk to and over each other in a “sped-up staccato” that borders on stream of consciousness, which, combined with the remote setting, delivers a Gothic, folkloric feel. A woman the twins nurse back to health doesn’t remember her own name, so they dub her Christ. Elsewhere, there are references to traditional land owners and songlines.
An undercurrent of trauma sweeps through the book; no character has a past free of abuse. For a yardstick of levity, the twins’ upbringing in a children’s home yields this darkly comedic line: “Once we tried to pee on the girl who enjoyed banging our heads together.” A lifetime of being treated as repulsive leads them to believe their state is “worse than death”. Life is not easy for Richards’ characters, who must confront the loneliness of being ostracised to allow themselves to be loved and accepted as they are. The result is redemptive, if not altogether uplifting.
Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 9, 2019 as "Kate Richards, Fusion". Subscribe here.