Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Secret Twin

I finished The Secret Twin a few weeks ago and have been putting off writing about it, not because I didn't like it, but because I'm not sure how to describe this unusual novel.

I read (and loved) Denise Gosliner Orenstein's previous novel Unseen Companion earlier this year. Unseen Companion is set in Alaska and describes the disappearance of a young man in a remote village. The story is told from the perspective of several young people who come into contact with him or his story. This narrative technique is one of the few similarities between Unseen Companion and The Secret Twin.

This time Orenstein has set her novel in an urban environment. In fact, the action mostly takes place inside an oppressive, obsessively clean house; the home of a young boy, Noah, and his grandmother. This gives the novel a feeling of claustrophobia, deliberately I think, since Noah has been kept in the house by his grandmother and allowed little contact with the outside world. Noah's grandmother, who he calls 'Mademoiselle', is a creepy, controlling figure. She has forced her obsession with cleanliness and her sparrow-like eating habits on her grandson, all the while nursing her secret drinking problem. She dominates Noah's life allowing him little chance to grow either emotionally or physically. When the novel begins he is a skeletal, shadowy boy who often retreats into his thoughts, particularly dwelling on the death of his conjoined twin after their birth.

This changes with the arrival of Nurse Grace. Nurse Grace is outwardly the opposite of Noah. She is large, chatty and constantly eats junk food, much to Noah's horror. She has come to care for Noah after his grandmother has an operation, and her presence in the house upsets the careful balance and control that has been maintained by Noah and his grandmother. Grace, though, is also mourning the loss of someone; for her, it is the death of her young brother.

The chapters are alternatively told from the perspective of Grace and Noah, and it is interesting to see how each of them are revealing or concealing parts of themselves. Grace makes some progress trying to befriend Noah, to nourish him with good food and to give him the confidence to open up to the world, however the tension in the novel is heightened by the presence of a sniper in their neighbourhood who is killing random victims. Orenstein plays with her audience here, hinting at the sniper's identity and potential victims.

The Secret Twin is a beautifully written novel. The characters are psychologically complex and the dark, almost claustrophobic, atmosphere is carefully maintained. However it won't be for everyone. Despite being primarily about young characters, it is hard to imagine a teenage audience warming to this very unusual novel. While I enjoyed reading The Secret Twin, it also was distinctly discomforting. Death, conjoined twins and scary, obsessive grandmas do not make for a relaxed read.

NB. A complimentary copy of this novel was supplied to this delicious solitude by Katherine Teegan Books (HarperCollins Publishing)

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