There were two books I bought as a result of working in the Bodleian and happening upon them – one was Yellow by Janni Visman (which I reviewed earlier in the year), and the other was Alva & Irva by Edward Carey. The former drew me by its cover; the latter by its concept and the fact that it is about twins. Tonight my book group met up to discuss Alva & Irva, as I thought I probably wouldn’t get around to reading it unless I suggested it there.
Alva & Irva is a deliciously quirky novel – it takes the form of a (fake) travel guide/history to the city Entralla (fictional city, I should say) and the autobiographical writings of Alva Dapps. She describes her upbringing and closeness to Irva – and later her longings for separation and exploration. At the same time, Irva becomes more and more withdrawn, quiet and reclusive. (I’d quote some of this to you, but I let someone else borrow my copy.) As Irva refuses to leave the house, and Alva wishes both to explore and to tempt her away, they start a joint project: Alva walks through all the streets of Entralla taking measurements, photos, drawings – from which Irva makes a plasticine model of the city.
It all sounds faintly ridiculous, I daresay, but somehow the book really works – it is a novel filled with grotesque characters (in the sense of exaggerated and strange) – the father who is obsessed with stamps, for example. The novel is actually, in many ways, about obsession – whether with objects or people or tasks. Obsession and exaggeration – the events I’ve described are amongst the more normal. Wait til you find out what Alva gets tattooed on herself.
In amongst all the glorious absurdity, I discovered a very moving narrative. Perhaps my love of twin-lit made me read a little too much into it, but I found the breaking of Alva and Irva’s close bond incredibly touching, as Alva sought others and Irva couldn’t understand why, and their responses to this.
It’s so difficult to suggest which readers might like Alva & Irva because Carey’s novel is so utterly unlike anything else I’ve read. Sometimes the black humour is a little Saki-esque, and the cover quotation claims it has similarities with Kafka, but I’ve not read any. Anyone who enjoys the quirky and unusual, and of course anyone with my love of twin-lit, would enjoy a wander into Carey’s world. It’s not a journey you’ll take anywhere else.