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Chang and Eng Paperback – May 1, 2001
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Narrated by Eng, one of a pair of conjoined twins, Chang and Eng is a daring novel that constantly threatens to lose its balance. It's also one that would be hard to believe were it not rigorously grounded in historical fact. Like the (literally) inseparable protagonists of Darin Strauss's debut, Chang and Eng Bunker were born in the early 1800s in a rainy village on the shores of the Mekong Delta. Achieving instant fame as the "Siamese double boy," they toured freak shows throughout China, Europe, and North America. Eventually they settled in North Carolina (of all places), married a pair of sisters, and fathered 21 children between them.
This fictionalized version of their story is narrated by the stronger, more circumspect twin, Eng, who must continually urge Chang to restrain his tears, his burning sexual desires, and his fear of the King of Siam (who has promised to "kill the double-child, the bad omen"). From the beginning, Strauss masterfully delineates the brothers' differences. Yet it's the porous nature of their relationship that will fascinate readers even more. The twins, after all, must always sleep face to face, connected by a fleshy band and the knowledge of their shared monstrosity. The fact that they are neither "he" nor "we" allows the author myriad opportunities for wordplay and psychological riddles. Does Chang love his brother, or does he love himself? When he hates his brother, is it only a piece of himself he is hating? Might the connecting band be its own entity, a pet that the brothers must tend to and feed? When they were children, Eng recalls, the band
was about two inches long, and Chang loved it. He called it Tzon, or ripe banana, and wailed if ever I mentioned severing it. It was more taut then, and would crackle like an old knee when we inched closer or farther apart (no one had any idea the thing would grow with us, and one day allow lateral positioning). I often fidgeted with a stretch of brown leathery skin--a hairy birthmark--midway across it, and also a little brown dot, a charming dinky island that lived, insolently, just free from the shoreline of the larger birthmark.The novel's agile prose is like a smooth, strong current, pulling the twins away from their awkward lives. To his great credit, Strauss spends very little time dwelling on Chang and Eng as monsters, and their freak-show existence surfaces only in short, painful flashbacks--a jeering interlude that the narrator would sooner forget. And Eng's voice is a compelling one, full of quips, insecurities, and jealousy. Indeed, at some moments he seems like a standard-issue Renaissance man, reading Shakespeare in the afternoon, dreaming about pretty women, recounting his extensive travels. Yet the tragic fact remains: no matter how many countries this cosmopolitan visits, he will never have a room to himself. --Emily White --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
In his stunning debut, Strauss fictionalizes the lives of famous conjoined brothers Chang and Eng Bunker, whose physical oddity prompted the term Siamese twins. With compelling characterizations and precise, powerful prose, this audacious work should appeal equally to fans of historical, psychological and literary fiction. Born in the Kingdom of Siam in 1811, the twins are joined together at the chest by a seven-inch-long ligament that contains a part of their stomach, the only organ they share. Apart from this band of flesh, they are completely separate individuals with different personalities and needs. Serious and reserved Eng narrates their story, which begins on their parents' boat on the Mekong River. They are soon the object of curiosity, condemned to death when they are six years old by Siam's superstitious King Rama, who then changes his mind and exploits them as freaks. An unscrupulous American promoter brings them to America in 1825. Eng reads Shakespeare, preaches temperance and, all his life, wishes desperately to be separated. Chang is outgoing and garrulous, drinks heavily (which angers Eng, who must also experience the effects of Chang's indulgence) and cannot see himself as less than two. As young boys, the first time the brothers see other children their own age, their philosophical differences are apparent: "'They are half formed!' Chang whispered. To me [Eng] they seemed liberated." The brothers find celebrity as a circus act (displayed in a cage) in the U.S. and abroad, become aware of the political tumult preceding the Civil War, and marry sisters in North Carolina and father 21 children between them--yet this dense fiction succeeds as far more than sensational expos?. The author gracefully confronts the complicated issues of race, gender, infidelity, and identity, as well as the notion of what is normal. Strauss's vivid imagination, assiduous research and instinctive empathy find expression in a vigorous, witty prose style that seduces the reader and delivers gold in a provocative story of two extraordinary men who wish only to be seen as ordinary. Agent, John Hodgman. (June) FYI: Strauss was featured in "A Budding Crop of First Fiction" (PW, Jan. 10).
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
I think this book is most interesting to read. Many issues connected with the lives of the twins are raised such as privacy and intimacy as well as the hardships and indignities of their " publicly exposed " lives. Mr. Strauss writes well with genuine feeling for his subjects. The reader feels the challenges and the development of these two men. He has invested their lives with an innate dignity so that the reader comes to a real appreciation for the difficulties these men had to experience and what they achieved as admirable human beings. I bought this book at Amazon.
The author tells the story of the conjoined twins through the first person narration of Eng. Born in 1811 in a house boat on the Mekong River in Siam, which is now known as Thailand, Chang and Eng entered the world linked together at the chest by a fleshy band of cartilage. It would be this short band of flesh that would forever bind them together, ensuring that they would never have a truly private moment. For their entire lives, they would be bound to each other, and the two would be forced to live as one.
The author explores their private and often strange lives, which the reader views through Eng's eyes. It is through his intimate thoughts that the reader envisions how the twins may have possibly viewed their own lives. The reader follows the path that their lives took, from their poverty stricken childhood on the Mekong River to their presentation to the King of Siam. It then shows how, as adolescents, they came to arrive in America, where they were displayed as oddities. Eventually, they became an international sensation, becoming nineteenth century celebrities.
Amazingly, they went on to marry two sisters, Adelaide and Sarah, with whom they fathered a total of twenty-one children. Chang and Eng set up house in North Carolina, where they raised their family. Still, this book is not so much about the factual portion of their lives, but rather, about the thoughts of Eng, as he and Chang pass through life together. It is a very intimate, insightful look at their lives and, in particular, the longings of Eng to experience life as most do, as one and not as two.
This is a well-written and delicately nuanced work of historical fiction that is highly imaginative. Instead of having the reader remain on the outside of the lives of Chang and Eng, looking in, the author manages to take the reader into their lives, having the reader look out onto the world from the perspective of Eng. Through Eng, the reader sees the twins as having two very distinct and unique personalities and realizes the angst that they must have experienced in never being able to have a truly private moment. At times, Chang and Eng appear to have had a love-hate relationship. This is a poignant and haunting look at these two individuals, who were, by necessity, constrained to live as one.
For those who are intrigued by the lives of Chang and Eng, but would prefer a purely biographical treatment, "The Two" by Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace is excellent and highly recommended.