Review: 26a by Diana Evans

Diana Evans's exploration of the pains and solaces of twinhood, 26a, impresses Maya Jaggi

by Diana Evans
231pp, Chatto, £12.99

Twins and doubles have always proved irresistible to novelists, whether they embody the menacing multiplicity of the human psyche - as with Dostoevsky and Robert Louis Stevenson - or satirise perverse experiments with nature and nurture, as with Zadie Smith. Diana Evans's marvellous debut is different. Herself a twin, she grounds her novel in the emotional complexities of growing up in twinhood: the privileged comforts of "twoness in oneness"; the terror of being alone and simultaneous craving for self-discovery. Yet as the story darkens, it illuminates not only the nature of twins, but the universal quest for both mirroring affirmation and individuality, the perils of solitude and fragmentation, and the transcendence of all separation and loss.

It opens arrestingly with a mythic reincarnation. Two animals, following each other's scent to become moonlit roadkill, are reborn as infant twins into "surgical electric white". Georgia Hunter, elder by 45 minutes, and Bessi, who spends her first weeks in an incubator, grow up at 26a Waifer Avenue, Neasden, within spitting distance of the North Circular. The girls inhabit a loft with a "spaghetti-Western saloon door", strawberry-smelling beanbags, and a hamster called Ham, who eyes his plastic wheel with as much puzzlement as the twins do their family: their father Aubrey ("a sour-faced man with a morning tremble"), mother Ida (who "walked slower than anyone else in England"), elder sister Bel and younger sister Kemi.

The Hunters seldom venture past Kilburn, content with Neasden's Gladstone park and to watch the wedding of Charles and Di on television, scraping their ice-cream bowls "so that the Hunters became an orchestra". The twins hope the royal pageant will rekindle their parents' tenderness, but Aubrey's eyes contain a bathetically belligerent message for his wife: "Where the fuck is my pudding?"

The novel traces the parents' meeting in Lagos. At 15 Ida had walked out from a Nigerian village where her father had "bought a radio" with her nubile elder sister and now had his eye on a portable TV. Aubrey had fled Derbyshire at 29 from a mother who still fussed over his washing. Yet she was the "only other human being he felt he resembled", who gave him a "certificate of being".

The twins are each other's certificates of being. When one suffers, the other's face throbs. Their minute differences grow under others' scrutiny, making the "fatter, quieter" Georgia diet and gabble to compensate. But the gap widens after a trip to Nigeria, where guavas displace apples, and the twins discover that "home was homeless. It could exist anywhere, because its only substance was familiarity." Georgia's entrapment by Sedrick the gardener, a cockroach-haunted veteran of the Biafran war, leaves her bereft of the "now-ness of things", and harbouring a secret from her still-innocent twin. "Bessi is where bad things never happen," says Georgia. "I needed you to be my sunlight, Bessi ... I lost mine."

Back in Neasden, with malign symmetry - and deft authorial splicing - the twins lose their virginity to the unworthy brothers Dean and Errol, who, comparing notes on Jamaica and Nigeria, are drawn to the girls' gelly flicks and sandy skin ("sand was better than coal"). But as Bessi strikes out on her own, revelling under St Lucia's twin Pitons, Georgia's moods swing in vivid colour, from benign "yellow" days to dangerous "red" ones. After an acid trip, the "shadows" in her head become voices urging self-destruction.

While Britain mourns its "fairytale" princess, the Hunters face their own bereavement. But the spirit who comes to "inhabit" her surviving twin takes on a first-person voice to tell her that "twoness never ends". The novel intimates how death and loss sharpen perception of life, and how the dead live on in others, as the twins find a "different way of talking. You smell the roses more deeply and watch the sky more closely, how it turns, the change at dusk as lilac finds indigo."

Though Evans lost her twin in adulthood, the novel is beyond fictionalised autobiography in its echoing exploration of other "couples" and doubles, whether spouses, lovers, or parents and children. Homesick Ida converses with her absent mother, while drunken Aubrey mutates into his own Mr Hyde. Georgia wonders whether being in love was "something like being a twin", though, when she falls for the Jimi Hendrix follower Toby, Bel cautions against joining herself to "another so like you". While many characters yearn for completion and to "fit in", twinhood becomes a metaphor for the solace and claustrophobia of all powerful, mirroring loves.

The writing is both mature and freshly perceptive, creating not only a warmly funny novel of a Neasden childhood - with its engaging minutiae of flapjacks and icepops, lip gloss and daisy hairclips - but a haunting account of the loss of innocence and mental disintegration. It hints at the randomness of fate, or character, that can allow one child to grow unfettered while a moment of cruelty can damage and stunt another. A novel about being twins grows stealthily, movingly, into one about being human.

The GuardianTramp

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