Book review / An uncommon bond

Two, or a Book of Doubles: an autobiographical anthology by Penelope Farmer, Virago, pounds 20

Twins habitually arouse curiosity among the rest of us. Perhaps we all want to know what it might be like to experience what Plato described as the deepest of all human yearnings: our desire for an actual encounter with our own imaginary but much-longed-for other half. This hankering may even have physiological echoes, given that one fifth or more of us singletons also started existence in a twinful state before the other shadow foetus vanished back into the uterus.

But along with this envious interest, encouraged by those cheerfully unreal stories about twins written for children this century, there is a more negative type of inquisitiveness. What happened when both infants wanted attention at the same time? Was there a secret language which delayed ordinary speech? What about the eternal playing off of bad twin versus good twin, a staple ingredient of so many novels and movies? Put another way, how are you - the hapless twin object of all these questions - getting on with your own twin these days?

Penelope Farmer is a highly individual author who has written a children's classic, a study of myth, and several novels. She is also a twin; her sister Judith died five years ago. Within this anthology, she looks for answers to the questions she constantly asks herself about all twins everywhere. Her own running contributions also describe the stormy relationship she had with her sister. Haunting and provocative, they are material for someone else's anthology. Quotations elsewhere are drawn from more than 250 scientists and poets, anthropologists and novelists, with hardly any references to those most arid of all twin studies this century, performed by psychologists searching for the existence of an inherited IQ.

Farmer is after something much more important: an examination of the whole binary way in which humans have always tended to think, whereby evil is divided starkly from good, light from dark and right from wrong. In this dichotomous universe, twins can be seen both as a single supportive unit, forever fighting each other's battles in life, and as the divisive, potentially murderous couplings found in myth and the Bible.

Both images can be true. Twins in real life range from the Krays to the virtuous Bedser cricketing brothers, before whom an elderly Frenchman once sank to his knees following a local superstition that seeing identical twins brought good luck. Farmer herself is not an identical twin, but was often confused as one. She quotes from others detailing the way that such twins inevitably develop different personalities over time simply by being part of a couple within which certain roles, duties and personality traits usually come to be separated out.

Physiologically, however, identical twins may echo each other's development down to the smallest detail. Psychic convergence - reading minds, experiencing similar feelings at a distance - is more debatable, though some of the examples quoted here are difficult to explain on existing rational grounds.

The rest of us are born single and, if we are lucky, eventually find others with whom to share our lives as adults. Twins are born together, and as adults must become single - at least, from the other twin. Growing up will therefore always mean a sense of loss but also a feeling of liberation. No twin can ever be perfect for the other.

As Jennifer Gibbons - one of the famous "Silent Twins" of TV documentary fame - put it when writing about her sister June: "Somewhere I have a real twin in this world. J. can't be my real twin." From the sisters' childhood on an RAF base in Haverford West, and a tormented adolescence, their story ended unhappily in an early death after a spell in Broadmoor. The death of one, at least, brought some sense of relief for the other. The surviving twin wrote that she would like a banner reading "June is alive and well and has at last come into her own".

There is a surfeit of literary anthologies these days, often put together for no better reason than quick sales around Christmas. This one is different, assembled in an urgent spirit of enquiry. It draws on some fascinating and unfamiliar sources, and raises important questions about all individual experience. Excellently packaged by Virago, it remains compulsively readable for all its 482 pages.

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz