“Ingenious, sensual, gleeful. . . . It demands of its readers only imagination, and rewards them with hilarity, terror, and marvels.”—Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn
Nora and Blanche are cojoined twins. Nora, the dominant twin, thirsts for love and adventure, while Blanche has been asleep for nearly 30 years. Determined to shed herself of her her sister’s dead weight, Nora leaves for London in search of the mysterious Unity Foundation, which promises to make two one.
But once Nora arrives in London, the past begins to surface, forcing her into a most reluctant voyage into memory—a search for meaning and understanding, that will push Nora to the brink of insanity. Grotesque, funny, and dazzlingly told, Shelley Jackson’s first novel is an imaginative and touching portrait of two lives in a cleft world yearning for wholeness.
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About the Author
Shelley Jackson is the author of the short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, the hypertext novel Patchwork Girl, several children's books, and "Skin," a story published in tattoos on the skin of more than two thousand volunteers. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Read an Excerpt
Half LifeA Novel
By Shelley Jackson
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Shelley Jackson
All right reserved.
Blanche, white night of my dark day. My sister, my self. Blanche: a cry building behind sealed lips, then blowing through. First the pout, then the plosive; the meow of the vowel; then the fricative sound of silence.
Shhhh. Blanche is sleeping. She has been sleeping for fifteen years.
I can tell you the exact moment I knew she was waking up. But allow me a day's grace. Let me remember that last afternoon, unimportant in itself, wonderfully unimportant, when I was still Nora, just Nora, Nora Olney, Nora alone.
The flags lining Market Street from Church to Castro flexed and snapped, showing sometimes one, sometimes two linked rings. The stop signs shuddered on their spines. The wind had picked up in the late afternoon, as usual, and now the whole sky seemed to be toppling sideways over the Twin Peaks, carrying with it whorls of smoke from the incinerators and pure white spooks of fog. I was meandering home from the movie theater without the tickets I'd gone there for, joggling two oranges in a plastic bag and going over my excuses. Blanche was sleeping. Of course she was. I dropped into the gutter to skirt some crowd-control fences ganged in readiness against a streetlight,and our heads collided. A distant, confused echo of her pain overtook and lost itself in mine, but her breathing stayed steady and deep.
I was threading my way along the curb. The sidewalk was already thronged with out-of-towners, already dressed for Pride in brand-new T-shirts with rubbery silk-screened slogans, "One's Company" and "22" and "YESIAMESE." They were strolling in twos and threes and fours of varying molecular structure, exchanging glances of appraisal and nervous pleasure. The singletons anxious to understand, to be seen understanding. The twofers beaming, indecently grateful for one weekend of sanctioned self-satisfaction. Tomorrow they'd all be here: Siamese and Siamystics, conjoined and joiners, doppelgangers and gruesome twosomes, double-talkers, double-dealers, twice-told tale tellers. An odious prospect. Already I was getting looks of curiosity and sympathy, like the birthday child in a leukemia ward.
The twin amplifiers flanking the temporary stage back at Eighteenth Street retched, rid themselves of five beats of that ubiquitous "We-R-2-R-1-4-Ever," went dead. No we're not, I thought, reflexively. I pulled one hood of my hoodie farther over Blanche, but her blond hair spilled out, catching a rogue ray of sun, and the tourists gave each other quick digs with their elbows. It's Sleeping Beauty! As for the hag with the two-faced apple in her pocket, everyone knows how the story goes. Sooner or later she'll have to turn the other cheek.
"Repent," advised the wizened lady in the plastic visor who protested every day at Market and Sixteenth. Today her hand-lettered sign read "GO BACK TO SIAM."
"Oh, I do," I said, fervently, hand on hearts. She slit her eyes at me, suspicious.
Let me be clear, while I still can. I am a twofer -- what they used to call a Siamese twin, though I prefer "conjoined," with its faint echo of the alchemists' conjunctio and those copulatives copulating in grammar books. I'm the one on the left, your right. Blanche is on my right, your left. I -- oh, say it: we -- have strong cheekbones, long earlobes, hazel eyes, and dirty-blond hair, which is also usually dirty blond hair. Glamour is not very important to me, and it seems goofy to groom Blanche, like trimming my pubes into a heart. But I'm not really a hag. I am stern, though, and wear the marks of habitual sternness, while Blanche is smooth as soap. I never used to need a mirror to see what I looked like, I just turned my head. But we have grown apart, Blanche in her beauty sleep and I.
Dicephalus dipus dibrachius. That's two heads, two legs, and two arms: standard-issue twofer. Aside from that pair of face cards we hold an average hand, not much different from yours. Novelties include the short third collarbone we share between us; a spinal column that begins to divide in two around the sixth thoracic vertebra, flaring the upper chest; two windpipes, two and a half lungs, and a deuce of hearts. Audrey says vampires also have two hearts, one good, one bad. While the good heart beats, the vampire is as capable of kindness as any human soul, but when the good heart stops, the beat of the bad heart strengthens in the dying breast, and makes a decent woman rise from her coffin to prey on everyone she once loved best. The blood of kinfolk wets her chin.
If this is true of twofers too, I know which heart is mine.
I cut around the flower stall at the corner, vaulting a white bucket in which a single sunflower was privately flaunting itself, filling the whole bucket with a secret glow. My shadow eclipsed it for the duration of a blink. Blanche's head jerked when I landed, but this time, my hand was there to steady it. In the lee of the stall, I suddenly felt the lingering warmth of the June day. My temples prickled. The smell of smoke and roses rose around me. The light strengthened, the streetcar tracks shone like new scars, and I thought of the young woman recently killed by a streetcar on Church -- "Decapitated," Trey had reported with relish, though you couldn't believe everything he said -- and let go of Blanche's neck.
Across the street, a duplex figure in a festival T-shirt waved a fluttering pink flyer. Cindi and Mindi? I could not remember their names, but I had a feeling they rhymed. Twofer names so often do. Jane and Elaine, then, or Mitzi and Fritzi, were passing out flyers with both hands next to a leaning cutout of RubiaMorena, this year's Pride queen. Knowing it was futile, I kept my face lowered as I crossed, as if trying to read something in the shadow that glided along with me, symmetrical and terrible as a Rorschach blot.
Excerpted from Half Life by Shelley Jackson Copyright © 2006 by Shelley Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
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