Every now and then a book comes along which makes you think “wow”, and prevents the normal day-to-day activities taking place without a constant desire to be reading said book. It leads one to read whilst walking to work, often quite perilously, and sneak a copy under the desk in the library. This week such a book reared its head.
Back in one of my earliest posts, I asked people to suggest novels or plays with twins in – as a twin myself, it’s something I find endlessly interesting. Partly because the topic is fascinating, partly because I like discovering how accurate authors are in portraying twinship. Twinhood? Twinicity? Of course I can only compare to my own experience, so it’s not the most objective test. But it keeps me off the streets.
Anyway. A novel nobody mentioned back then was Linda Gillard’s A Lifetime Burning, but it is probably the most convincing portrayal of being a twin that I have ever read. Even more so than The Comedy of Errors. Then again, Topsy and Tim presented rather more verisimilitude than old Billybob. I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot of Gillard’s novel, for three reasons. Firstly, it will ruin genuine shocks and surprises which enhance the reading no end and add richness to the writing; secondly, Linda has said that she doesn’t really do plots – more characters to whom things happen; thirdly, it would sound ridiculous. I don’t mean that as a criticism at all – but a synopsis of the novel would make you think “wow, what a crazy amount of things happen to this family”, whereas reading the novel makes you think “Wow!”
So, not revealing the main plot points – but suffice it to say that the Dunbar family do not live uneventful lives. The novel focuses on Flora, whose funeral is witnessed in the opening pages, and flits between first and third persons, and many different times throughout her life. She is forceful, hopeful and often quite selfish, but with a disarming self-awareness – and great closeness with twin brother Rory. They are not identical personalities, nor are they wholly disparate (the two usual paths taken with twins in fiction) but rather complementing characters; individuals but intertwined.
Though the novel jumps all over the place, I never found it confusing – rather a path towards illumination and comprehension of the characters, understanding (rather than sanctioning) the way they act. Linda Gillard writes with lyrical intensity, beautiful prose which is powerful without being overly ‘flowery.’ I enjoyed her previous novel Emotional Geology, but this is leagues ahead of it – can’t recommend it enough. The subject matter isn’t uncontroversial, but nothing in A Lifetime Burning is gratuitous – and almost every other modern novelist I’ve read could take a leaf out of Gillard’s book.