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Alva & Irva: The Twins Who Saved a City Hardcover – March 1, 2003
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English playwright Edward Carey's novel Alva & Irva is a spirited, inventive tale with a vein of half-ironic sadness running through it that brings to mind the works of other European masters of this genre, namely Günter Grass, Italio Calvino, and Milan Kundera. Named for twin girls who create a plasticine model of their small European city, Alva & Irva is in part the life story of these eccentric twins and also a guidebook to the fictional city of Entralla. Entralla is a place so like countless small, undistinguished cities in Europe (right down to its invented brush with history--a rumor that Napoleon had spent a night there) that one could probably use Alva & Irva as an actual guidebook, standing in any number of piazzas, plazas, and squares, and glancing around at the cafés, cathedrals, chapels, post offices, and municipal buildings. Sometimes Carey overreaches, and the quirks of his characters become merely cute. When he rises above this, his attention to detail and his playful prose are a delight. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
In the spirit of his well-received first novel, the modern gothic Observatory Mansions, Carey crafts another fantastic tale, this one revolving around a pair of lonely identical twins. Alva and Irva live in the imaginary (vaguely Nordic) city of Entralla. Their father dies the same day they are born, and the twins are brought up by their reclusive mother. Inseparable from the beginning, they are also polar opposites: Alva, the novel's narrator, longs to see the world, and Irva, her silent twin, is content to stay home forever. When they are still very young, a gift of plasticine inspires them to build a model of their street; soon they are building an imaginary city, Alvairvalla. But then they grow older, and Alva craves independence, finally taking a job at the Entralla post office. Shut up in her room, Irva withdraws further, and Alva torments her by having herself tattooed all over with a map of the world. But in the end the tattoo haunts her and catapults her back into her sister's greedy embrace. Together, the two embark on their greatest plasticine project yet-a model of the whole city-little suspecting how useful it will become after disaster strikes Entralla. Structured around whimsical guidebook entries describing the landmarks of Entralla, and illustrated with photographs of buildings molded out of plasticine (Carey created his own two-by-three-foot model of the city), the novel casts a powerful if sometimes stifling spell. Carey is an enormously talented writer, but here the cleverness of his conceit tends to overshadow his characters, precipitating a slide into archness.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
Poignant is the closest I can come to explaining the tone of the book, but all is not as sad as that term might suggest. The twin sisters are unbelievably well portrayed by Carey. Alva's the want-to-be worldly one and Irva is scared of and by the world. Their interactions with each other and with their (ficitonal) town make up the story.
I had to look more than once at the picture of the author on the jacket. I could have sworn most of the book was written by someone much older. That isn't an "-ism" of any kind; there are some things in this world that can usually be described only by someone of a certain age and experience. I was amazed that he was born in 1970. I was also surprised many times that he is a "he" and not a "she" in his presentation of the sisters.
There are some blanks left for the reader to fill in. Sometimes this doesn't work well in a book, but in this case it adds to the pleasure. Like his Observatory Mansions, it's all about the people. Please read this book. It is a one of a kind.
The book is written alternately as a guidebook for tourists coming to Entralla, and as the memoir of Alva Dapps, the more outgoing of the two sisters. It comes complete with a detailed map, recommendations of where to stay and where to dine, which trolley bus to take to which destination; and the sad inner struggles of two odd and lonely girls who never belong anywhere.
Author Edward Carey is imaginative and insightful,but he doesn't always make things easy for his readers. Sometimes the account becomes almost too fanciful, too strained, even for the surreal medium in which he is working. The writing drags at times, especially in the travel guide sections. It was not easy for me to finish this book. However, it was certainly worth doing. Take the book for what it is, an extended meditation on the sense of place, an inquiry into what it means to belong--and you will find the book strangely moving and thought provoking. Reviewed by Louis N. Gruber.
The context of a guidebook for the unreal city of Entralla, complete with a street map and a recommended tour, frames the diary of Alva, the identical twin of Irva. As the twins grow up, they grow increasingly apart. Alva longs to travel and Irva turns inward. Alva's threat to leave her sister and their city plays out as the essential betrayal of anyone wanting to abandon their home. But Alva finds a reason to stay a while as she attempts to turn her sister from the retreat into herself, the smallest place there is. They take on the task of miniaturizing the city in plasticine; Alva documents the outside in photographs and measurements while Irva remains inside and sculpts. The tiny buildings "may not have been mathematically accurate, but they were, let there be no doubt about this, emotionally precise." It is emotional accuracy that matters.
"Miniature things move people." In Carey's world and in real life, it is because the perspective granted by things reduced focuses the emotions we associate with those things. Occasionally we are even made aware of the hundreds of other lives happening immediately around us. When Alva's and Irva's sculpture is reluctantly displayed to a scarred populace, both the smallness and the significance of the peoples' lives are somehow simultaneously grasped. These oppositions of place are difficult to hold in the same hand.
When the writer of this guidebook is revealed, the significance of small lives is once again emphasized and along with it the unavoidable bitterness of travelling alone in a vast world. This final revelation is devastating and beautiful in a novel full of contradictions. I don't ever expect to read any other book that so perfectly evokes my own feelings towards the places I have been.