Chang and Eng were the original Siamese twins, born in 1811 and joined together with a 6 inch band of tissue. Ordered from their riverside shack to the court of the King of Siam, they were then taken to America, where they ran away to join the circus of P T Barnum. Retiring to North Carolina and becoming US citizens, they married the Wilkes sisters and fathered more than twenty children between them. Despite various schemes proposed to separate them, the brothers remained joined all their lives.
Strauss has made this a novel, not a documentary, told as Eng's retrospective as he lies beside the dead body of his brother, knowing that he, too, is about to die. Both of the extremes to which this novel could have gone - sensationalism or politically correct polemic - have been deftly avoided. Strauss' telling is always beautifully controlled as he weaves together the tale of the twins' early life in poverty in rural Thailand and then at the King's court, with their later life in America.
For the most part, this is a beautiful tale of what binds us to other people - more than just flesh - and what makes us individual - Eng's increasing loneliness as he falls out of love with his wife, is rejected by Adelaide and watches Chang becoming an alcoholic, is heart-wrenchingly portrayed. Yet there are fabulous moments of high comedy too: one twin making a speech to the ladies' temperance society while the other swigs whisky, the double acrobatics they use to escape from their tormentors on more than one occasion, the peeking of the brother who is supposed to be asleep while the other makes love to his wife... To this is added just the right amount of period detail; the twins' stay in North Carolina is contemporary with the outbreak of the American Civil War, but like the brothers, Strauss avoids the politics and deals with the practicality. And though for much of the book, there is a serious lack of dramatic tension (one problem with the non-linear structure), this is more than made up for by the tension played along the band joining the passionate, volatile Chang to sanguine, intellectual Eng.
This is a beautiful and moving work of stunning imagination, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Ancient myths of two-headed monsters from all over the world testify to the antiquity of conjoined twins. They include Aker (an Egyptian earth-god, a lion with a human head at each end), the amphisbaena (a snake with a head at each end), the hiyakudori (a Japanese two-headed bird, an emblem of perfect love, embodying as it does the souls of two lovers), Janus (the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and doors), and Orthrus or Orthos (Geryon's two-headed dog, the brother of the three-headed dog Cerberus, offspring of Typhon and Echidna). Fictional counterparts include the Pushmi-pullyu, a two-headed llama-like creature given by the monkeys to Dr Dolittle, and Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Galaxy to which Douglas Adams supplied the hitch-hiker's guide. And those who have seen Tod Browning's 1932 film "Freaks" will remember the wisecracking conjoined twins, played by Daisy and Violet Hilton. Fictional biographies include Brian Aldiss's "Brothers of the Head", Donald Newlove's "Leo and Theodore", and Eileen Lottman's "She and I". And now Darin Strauss has produced a fictionalized biography of Chang and Eng, the conjoined twins first described as Siamese, about whom two previous biographies have been written, "The Two" by Irving and Amy Wallace (1978) and "Eng and Chang" by David Collins (1994). Chang and Eng, conjoined twins of the omphalopagus variety, were born in Siam in 1811 to Chinese parents. In 1825 they migrated to America, where they took the surname Bunker and were exhibited by PT Barnum. In 1843 they married sisters in Wilkes County, North Carolina, and fathered 21 children. They died in 1874, Chang of pneumonia, Eng of an unknown cause. So much for the rudiments of the story. Strauss's imagined account of their lives, which Eng narrates in the six hours between Chang's death and his own, creates tension by counterpointing the twins' contrasting personalities (Chang an irritable drunkard, Eng amiable and sober) in alternating accounts of the two contrasting phases of their lives-poverty, solitude, and obscurity in Siam, wealth, companionship, and fame in America. The biographies referred to above are good, but in real life you have to stick to the facts. In fiction, on the other hand, the author can allow his imagination to roam free, unconstrained by biographical reticence, untrammelled by the facts. In this case, the resulting book rings paradoxically more true than the biographies.
Darin Strauss suceeds in removing all sensationalism from this story of conjoined twins. Based on a true story, it's about the ties that bind mentally as well as physically. About a love-hate relationship between brothers, bodily closeness and mental absence. About individuality and the human condition and nature. Cutting back and forth between the twins' early life in Siam, and their later time in America it is beautifully written and an absorbing read.
Perhaps what's most extraordinary about this book is that Strauss, who isn't a twin, conjoined or separate, vividly invents what it must have been like to live tethered to another man by a "band" of flesh that links them chest to chest. Telling the story of these real-life twins, who were born in Siam in 1811, then finally settled and died in northwestern North Carolina in the United States, Strauss proves himself a writer of great imaginative gifts. "Chang and Eng" is a risky, ambitious and beautifully realized novel.
Mr Strauss' story about the two Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, linked at the chest, did actually live between 1811 and 1874. They were born in Siam, they met the King of Siam, they came to America and became celebrities, they married two sisters and were fathers of 21 children and lead a life as farmers in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Mr Strauss' novel is not ruled by historical facts and thus most of its characters and situations are the product of his imagination, making "Chang and Eng" a true work of fiction. The author thoughtfully explores the questions of union and separation, of individual identity and of the means one has to share and protect one's identity.
This is a work of genius, and as a rule I use that word most sparingly. Strauss has the grand, authoritative vision of a Tolstoy, the subtle linguistic flair of a Saul Bellow, and the dry wit of Kingsley Amis. Plus, he's bold enough to go where few other writers would dare: into the mind of a Siamese Twin. NOT TO BE MISSED!
A thoroughly absorbing book which manages not to get too bogged down with sentimentality and would make an interesting life story whether the twins were conjoined or not. The contrast between different locations such as the poverty stricken Thai home they are born into, the royal splendour of the Siam Kings palace where they spend some years, and the completely different culture of America is fascinating. The interplay between the personalities of the twins gives the book a depth that would be missed if they were dealt with as soley conjoined twins. In fact at some points I was so wrapped up in the story of two personalities getting through life that I forgot they were conjoined! All in all it's a really fascinating, moving and enjoyable read that was hard to put down.