Book review: The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh

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I’m still not 100% sure what I think about The Sex lives of Siamese Twins, a day after finishing it. On the one hand, it’s a zippy novel, it keeps you entertained, it has a nice little setup and an okay denouement. On the other, the characters are pretty poorly fleshed out and one-dimensional, and much of the dialogue and inner monologue can come across as clichéd.

It’s a very different novel from anything else I’ve read of Welsh’s, although I can’t profess to have read every single one of his novels. It tells the story of two women: Lucy and Lena, who meet through a chance incident when Lena videos Lucy apprehending someone. A complex relationship then develops between the two as sociopathic personal trainer Lucy tries to understand overweight, miserable artist Lena. The title refers to a news story the two women connect over, about two conjoined twins fighting to be separated, knowing one is likely to die. The twins’ story is potentially quite interesting: one twin wants to have sex with her boyfriend, the other twin doesn’t, and this leads to their desire to separate. However, it’s only really a sideshow to the main narrative and as such, its main presence appears to be one of capital-letters-literary-symbolism which means you feel hit over the head by it and that sense of connection between the two sets of women is more annoying than clever. (I’m also not sure why they are referred to as Siamese twins, rather than conjoined twins, other than perhaps the alliterative title sounds more exciting, or possibly to reveal some kind of prejudice of Lucy’s that we never really get to the bottom of).

The story is pacily told, the chapters are short and punchy, the events interesting and therefore it becomes a good page-turner. In some ways, it reminded me of Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m sure Welsh will be delighted with that comparison! However, the idea of one person trying to dominate another and the questions that causes the reader about dynamics of control and power are not a million miles away, especially with the way (spoiler) the story pans out.

The story is fun, in a sick kind of way (although not quite as sick as, say, American Psycho). It would make a really good feature film, and one that could find its own unique niche within the thriller/chiller genre. As a novel, it probably has more in common with blockbuster fiction than Booker Prize winners-not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it wouldn’t be impossible for a book to do both. Welsh has written lots of characters in previous novels that are well-rounded, sympathetic and interesting, and I don’t know whether or not it’s because he’s writing as female voices or American voices that causes the problem here, whether it’s the age of the characters or whether it’s a combination of factors that mean they’re so far removed from him he can’t write them as real people, but they are roles in the story rather than people we can believe in.

I enjoyed reading this book, for the most part. At times it frustrated me: the dialogue and in a monologue is a bit hammy at times, especially the ‘American’ affectations. I get that some of this is due to Lucy, in particular, putting on a persona-but it does grate. Lucy’s back story is pretty weak and lazy-I’m sure there are more interesting ways she could have developed the way she did and they may also have been more credible. As for Lena, we only discover about her artistic talents through Lucy-again, where’s the credibility in her background to reveal the kind of shock artist we’re told she is at heart? The flaws are a bit annoying, but they don’t necessarily detract from the story itself which is engaging, funny, sinister and very visual and evocative. I just wish the characters were as well considered as the environment they live in and the food they eat.

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