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Chang and Eng: A Novel Hardcover – June 1, 2000

4.1 out of 5 stars 86 ratings

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Amazon.com Review

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

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.

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