An imposingly original first novel that focuses on unique historical figures: the eponymous Siamese twin brothers (1811–74) who endured opprobrium and despair, became international celebrities, married two American sisters, and fathered 21 children between them.
Their amazing story is told by Eng, the more introspective and articulate of the brothers (who are joined at the chest by a fleshy ligament that gradually expands to permit them to rest side by side rather than facing). Eng's narrative, which begins with `the event I have feared since we were a child,` consists of two extended parallel stories: that of the twins' childhood on a houseboat on the Mekong River, appropriation by the epicurean King of Siam, at whose court they are educated and indulged, and their career as traveling `freaks` in America (where showman P.T. Barnum covets their services) and abroad; and that of their adult life in antebellum North Carolina, where they marry the aforementioned (Yates) sisters, prosper as hog farmers and slave owners, and eventually `separate` emotionally, as the ingenuous Chang sinks into alcoholism and Eng must wrestle with both his brother's degradation and his own guilty lust for his brother's wife. In harrowing detail, Strauss has imagined the physical adjustments required of the twins to perform even the simplest quotidian tasks, as well as the psychic strain their `monstrous` condition creates, and he explores with cool precision the equally crippling temperamental contrasts between Chang's ebullient naiveté and Eng's increasing capacity for deceit and emotional coldness. Occasionally the author shows his hand too plainly (for example, when Eng observes that `The birth of our children intersected with an odd time for America`). Nonetheless, he presents with impressive delicacy and restraint the unavoidable felt connection between the American Civil War and the brothers' own simultaneously united and divided state.
Admirably researched, continuously absorbing, and very moving indeed.