The following review appeared in the Scotsman on the 30th August 2017 (follow this link for the original article). Thanks once again to the Scotsman and The Wellcome Trust.
The Less You Know The Sounder You Sleep tells the life story of Dasha and Masha Krivoshlyapova, Russian conjoined twins who were born in 1950 and who died in 2003. Juliet Butler interviewed them many times while she worked as a translator in Russia, and has previously published a biography of their lives – which, she informs us, was “heavily edited by Masha,” the dominant twin. This novelisation, then, is an attempt to tell Dasha’s story, and what a magnificent achievement it is.
The book begins in 1956, at the Paediatric institute in Moscow, when the twins are six. They are living in a box – a glass box, cot-sized – and are bored. They want to go home for the weekend with a member of staff they’ve become attached too, who they call mummy. “She’s not your mummy,” a cleaner barks at them soon afterwards. “Your mummy probably went mad as soon as she saw you two freaks.”
The girls, we learn, were taken from their real mother at birth and subjected to barbaric experiments: “We both get all crunched into the corner of the cot to hide when we see it’s Dr Alexeyeva come in, and we start crying, because it means it’s time for our procedures.”
The exact nature of these “procedures” is revealed only later on in the book, and they make for disturbing reading. So far so grim-sounding, but in fact this book is anything but. The Less You Know... is a searingly frank and sympathetic portrayal of two very different women: Dasha, our narrator, who’s smart, sensitive, honest and loving; and her sister Masha who is quite the opposite: vicious, foul-mouthed and psychopathic – and outrageously funny with it. While receiving a lecture Dasha recounts: “(He) starts going on about Equality and Justice and Doing No Wrong. It’s a bit awkward, as we’re standing next to the little kid Masha tried to stuff down the rubbish chute the other day.”
There was a risk that Masha could turn into a figure of hate – especially given her incessant casual cruelties to Dasha – but we stay onside because we sense she’s a survivor, and because her sister obviously loves her. Dasha’s voice as narrator is a wonderful achievement, and there’s much to be moved by here as she recounts her life, not least the moment the twins see themselves in the mirror for the first time: “...we saw this lumbering, ugly thing with bits sticking out everywhere rocking towards us... like nothing we’d ever seen before. It was me and Masha. It was how everyone sees us. I won’t even think about it now, it makes me sick.” Of the girls’ first time outside, she recalls: “My head’s spinning like it does when we do loads of somersaults. There grass is mushy, not hard like the floor, and there are no walls anywhere to keep us upright... It’s too big, there’s too much space, there’s nothing keeping us in!”
The girls grow up and move to a school for invalids in Novocherkassk, where they make friends, including Slava, who Dasha falls in love with. Then after a grading which condemns the girls to invalidity and lifelong state support they move back to Moscow, where the new administrator, on warning them against self-harm, tells them icily: “Our statistics for suicide are the best in Moscow. So if you intend to die, we shall ensure it’s of natural causes.”
The girls spend their lives struggling against the oppression of the system and the ignorance of “healthies”: “Ugh... you should’ve been drowned at birth,” is a fairly typical reaction from people who encounter them.Set against this, though, are those who treat them with love and humanity, most memorably Aunty Nadya, who battles Kafkaesque soviet bureaucracy to get two passports rather than one, and who is there (unforgettably) for them in the final hours of their life.
This novel, while always being an accessible read, offers profound insights into the effects of early deprivation on two very different people, and into the daydreams we nurture in order to survive; it tells us about love in impossible circumstances, and about the loneliness of never actually being alone. And the importance of having something to hope for. “Olessya always used to say that happiness lies in three things,” Dasha tells us. “Having someone to love, something to do and something to hope for. At least I’ve got the first and last.” For the second: do yourself a favour and read this wonderful book.
Here are another five favourite stories:
1. Room – Emma Donoghue
This is the book that made me want to write The Last of Us. Jack's voice and the sense he makes of his constricted world is an amazing achievement. In Room he has so little to play and interact with that ordinary objects become Capital-letters important (Bed, Wall, Plant, Zigzag Knife), and the way he struggles to understand the reality of things on TV is heart-breaking. Survival here is about the hardest decisions, impossible decisions; then having to survive what comes after.
2. I am Legend – Richard Matheson
Matheson was already my hero for being the mind behind The Incredible Shrinking Man (whose final scene of our guy turning to dust on a windowsill haunted me as a kid and, later on, inspired some very bad teenage poetry). Robert Neville has to battle the vampires - alone. Actually what impressed me most about this book was how deeply Matheson had invested in the reality of his world - I never really believed in vampires until I read this. I am Legend is about survival, yes, but maybe even more about loneliness. Which leads me on to…
3. Night Work – Thomas Glavinic
One character. Alone. Jonas is a young Viennese man who wakes up one day to find everyone has gone. Not just his family or friends, or immediate neighbourhood: everyone. Glavinic's descriptions of empty cities are brutally convincing – so much so that you begin to fear who might be out there, hiding. As the book goes on it becomes clear that Jonas's survival is threatened not so much by a lack of water, or food, or shelter, or even sleep: but by loneliness. Is it a dream? Is it purgatory, heaven, or hell? A compelling nightmare of a book.
4. The Patrick Melrose novels – Edward St Aubyn
I get to cheat by including this book which contains all five Patrick Melrose novels (Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, At last.) Survival here is about surviving childhood trauma: which is the subtext for everything Patrick does after – from his prowling for heroin in the Bronx, to his failures in marriage and relationships and family life – and we forgive him all because we saw what happened at the start, and so will root for him for ever. (David his father is one of the nastiest pieces of work in fiction.)
5. Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller
Peggy and her father James, hiding out in their forest retreat in die Hütte, are the last survivors of the end of the world. Except that they aren’t. Claire Fuller gives us some of the most icily brilliant descriptions of privation (physical, spiritual, temporal, and most crucially of all, parental) you’ll ever read. I love the way she drops bombshells mid sentence (check out lower down page 53) where other writers would drag it out. And from someone who really struggled to name his novel – what a great title. Survival of the hardest sort here, when memory fails and fantasy grows in its place, and you can't even be sure what it was you endured.
Real life survival stories are hard to beat. Surely fiction can't hope to be as compelling? Fiction can't rely on suspension of disbelief, for starters. But it can go where the eyewitness or reality can’t: into the realms of fantasy, up to the point of death and beyond; into the far future or back to the distant unrecorded past. And it can give voice to those too young or traumatized to bear witness.
When I was writing The Last of Us I was aware I had to get the balance right: it had to feel real life (so lots of weirdly particular details – discarded gloves, masks, pills; child's eye descriptions of people's houses) while at the same time function as a work of fiction. There had to be an arc, a build of tension, while retaining something of the outlandish, dreamlike and downright queer verve that true stories have.
Here then are five novels (in no particular order) which I really admire, and where survival is a key theme, or key to the plot. I'll blog another five in the next few days.
1. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy did appear to be in a bit of a hurry to dispense with the mother figure, who simply gave up (there are some brilliant feminist readings of The Road online which you should look up) but after that it’s all lads on tour!, though with not much in the way of road trip comedy. The few hours of respite that Man and Boy gain as they discover the hidden cell haunt me still: as do McCarthy’s odd stylistic twists of cranky, sometimes fussily precise language, so perfect for describing the fractured remnants of our world. Not a lot of romance in this one.
2. Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones
Love the way this starts. Like Lloyd Jones was setting himself a challenge: let's have a character called Pop Eye, who wears a clown's nose and pulls Mrs Pop Eye with a bit of string attached to the trolley she's standing in. Go on Lloyd: write the rest of that! This marvellous book uses a child's words to describe adult horror: the worst of all in half a sentence which breaks the heart. Now I can't think of Great Expectations without also thinking of young Matilda, and what Pip finally meant to her.
3. Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch
You know those books that start in one place – but then take you down an entirely different path you never saw coming? When the penny dropped and I began to realise where Carol Birch was taking this story it blew me away. It also contains one of those instants where you sense a writer in full flight and seeing crazy stuff… I'm thinking of the komodo dragon overboard, gazing around the sea until it begins swimming purposefully for land. (There's a wee nod to this in The Last of Us.)
4. William Golding – Pincher Martin
Pure story. Pure adventure. Surviving on the smallest of things – rainwater, weeds, sea anemones – and on the smallest of places, a rock in the north Atlantic. An amazing evocation of someone's last hours, or maybe last few seconds…
5. Life of Pi – Yann Martell
Why did five publishers turn down the chance to publish Life of Pi? Ok, it was his third book (death to the midlist author! cries the publishing industry) but also I reckon because it starts with a description of the habits of the… eh, three-toed sloth. But this is exactly right for setting up Piscine Patel's voice, which Yann Martell sustains brilliantly for the rest of the book. And what a book. Didn’t make me believe in God, but did make me want to be vegetarian.
My novel The Last of us was published by The Borough Press in April 2016.