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Rose and Ruby Darlen are 29, and the world's oldest surviving craniopagus twins. Emerging, joined at the head, during a freak tornado and abandoned by their terrified teenage mother, they have been brought up by Lovey Darlen, the fiercely protective nurse who delivered them, and her gentle immigrant husband, Uncle Stash. Corn and crows form the backdrop to their life in peaceful southern Ontario, where "to most, we're a curiosity. In small-town Leaford, where we live and work, we're just 'The Girls'. if you glance at us, you might think we're two women embracing, leaning against the other tête-a-tête, the way sisters do."
Rose, the poetic twin, is both academic and sporty. Permanent physical attachment to her sickly yet more pragmatic sister thwarted her chances of university. Her long legs and 5ft 5in frame, topped by features "misshapen and frankly grotesque", support the ravishingly pretty, club-footed Ruby, who did not excel at school, and holds an unhealthy obsession with television running alongside a serious interest in historical artefacts and a firm belief in reincarnation.
In the weeks leading up to their 30th birthday Rose receives the not-unexpected diagnosis of a brain aneurysm. Given the complexities of the mass of linked veins in their soldered heads, the outcome will be fatal for Ruby as well as herself. They therefore begin - Rose with lyrical urgency on her much-prized laptop, Ruby labouring away with matter-of-fact reluctance on a yellow legal pad - to set down their own interpretations of their life story. For as Ruby explains: "although we're conjoined twins, and technically have parallel vision, we don't always see eye to eye".
The girls grow up surrounded by mirrors - to enable them to see each other - under the gaze of their adopted parents. Identical twins who refuse to dress the same, they "hate doing things in unison". The major incidents in their lives - the perpetual sorrow of their near-neighbours, who lost their only son in the tornado which heralded the twins' birth; a prank by a playmate which almost leads to their drowning at their eighth birthday party; a joint crush on the dissolute Frankie Foyle, who gives Ruby her first kiss and simultaneously takes Rose's virginity - are interwoven with tender depictions of Lovey and Stash's courtship.
One twin becomes pregnant and a child is lost. A descriptively entrancing yet faintly absurd journey is undertaken to Uncle Stash's native Slovakia to bury his mother's ashes (a passage of annoying whimsy which sabotages the tone of the book and doesn't ring true). Deaths occur, both sudden and slow; partings and reconciliations; friends and work, continuity and love. In short, the variegations of normal life.
Lori Lansens' gift lies in locating the unusual nestling among the commonplace. Her previous novel, Rush Home Road, used a deceptively minor account of an elderly black woman's life to uncover the wider tale of slavery in northern America and southern Canada. In The Girls, she shows how severely restricted, prematurely shortened lives can be unostentatiously crammed full. It could have been a mawkish tale, but largely avoids this by nicely balancing Rose's tremulous romanticism with Ruby's sardonic observations: "I can't imagine how even the most brilliant author could describe to a stranger what it's like to take your life's journey with your sister attached to your head." Lansens' blend of salt and sentimentality gives a mostly believable indication.