- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleBarnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
The story of Chang and Eng, the famous Siamese twins for whom the term was coined, is one everyone seems to know. And yet, how much does any of us really know about them?
Darin Strauss, homesick from work and channel-surfing, happened upon Oprah when she was doing a show on conjoined twin girls. As the two jumped up and said in perfect harmony, "We're a big girl now," Strauss was struck by the mystery of that one statement and thus began a three-year journey into the lives of the Siamese twins that would become Chang and Eng. Written from Eng's point of view, Strauss sought to humanize the struggle of the twins, and in doing so, has brought forth a beautifully imagined story, after which no reader will be able to think of them again as mere biological oddities or freaks in a sideshow.
But aside from detailing their lives, what Strauss does best in this debut historical novel is to separate the twins; with magnificent psychological insight, he does what no one else has dared, giving them separate identities, never to be blurred again. (Spring 2000 Selection)
The Barnes & Noble Review
They share a stomach and other organs and, by necessity, a fate. In Chang and Eng, first novelist Darin Strauss performs the surgery no doctor could undertake, granting these famous Siamese twins a measure of solitude and the distinctly separate lives they could never know. From the cramped Mekong River houseboat where they were born to the crowded bedroom where, with their wives, the twins conceived 21 children, Strauss takes Chang and Eng out of the freak-show spotlight to glimpse the passionate longings and ironic hopes burning in the conjoined breasts of two extraordinary brothers.
"Mekong Fishermen stay abreast of change," says the twins' father. "Rivermen's judgment helps one to make the appropriate decisions at the appropriate moment and diminish the influence of fate." This is the motto by which Eng, the taller and "right side" of the twins, attempts to guide himself and his brother through a life that is as unpredictable as it is unforgiving. Chang and Eng's saga begins in 1811, on a meager floating home on the Mekong River in Siam. They pass their early years under the protection of their loving mother and the guidance of a father who teaches them his "twin passions"—fishing and a fearsome Gung-Fu, adapted to accommodate their double form. Their bodies are completely formed, attached at the chest by a band of ligament and flesh that, in childhood, requires them to remain face-to-face but in later years grows to to allow them to walk side by side, each with an arm around the other's shoulder. As rumors spread of the fabled "Double-Boy," Chang and Eng are plagued by primitive doctors who wish to separate them (something Eng desires desperately, although it would surely kill them both) and terrorized by other children. Eventually, word of their existence reaches as far as the king of Siam, who believes them to be a bad omen and orders that they be captured and brought to Bangkok to be destroyed.
Fortunately for the anomalous pair, the king finds them entertaining and instead uses them to impress the emperor of Cochin China. Thus, at the age of seven, they begin the journey that will lead them to America, where they achieve a modest fame (becoming the attraction for which the term "Siamese Twins" was coined) and are courted (unsuccessfully) by P. T. Barnum, who offers to establish them as a sideshow in his circus.
Strauss's ambitious novel not only explores the dualities that exist within an individual but also the ironies that are implicit when two individuals are physically joined. In alternating chapters, Chang and Eng reveal how they became famous as a human spectacle, as well as the later and in many ways more fascinating part of their lives, when they meet and marry Adelaide and Sarah Yates. This paired narrative describes how the twins strive to live lives they had believed impossible—that of married family men, farmers sharing a domestic life in North Carolina. The two stories evolve at an even pace, each with its own timeline, so the leaps back and forth between their early and later lives are not disruptive. Rather, the two story lines motivate each other, revealing not only the impossibly sad longings for normalcy in a life as a public curiosity but also a candid look at the curiosities of their marriages and their—quite literally—tangled love lives.
Although Chang and Eng is extensively researched, Strauss makes wise and gentle use of the biographical record, giving the characters and their fictionalized private lives precedence over the historical gaps or fabled accounts that could constrain the telling. From mutant boys of the Mekong River to the playthings of the king of Siam, curiosities shanghaied from their homeland by opportunistic businessmen to slaveholding North Carolina planters at the dawn of the Civil War, Chang and Eng are treated as characters and not as subjects, their fates impossible to predict. Although Eng's lifelong desire to be alone—severed from his brother—robs both their lives of a certain level of contentment, his fate is ultimately one of separation. At the age of 63, he awakens to find that his brother is dead and knows that his own death is imminent. How he copes with finally getting his wish proves the truth of his father's adage.
Chang and Eng's struggle to live as individuals in a body the world saw as a single, nonhuman creature is nothing short of heartbreaking. But in Strauss's story, the "creature" dissolves, allowing us to experience in Chang and Eng's lives our own conflicted needs and hopes and to see that their tale is, against all odds, a profoundly human one.