26A by Diana Evans
26a, Diana Evans’ debut novel, provides us with yet another "new voice of multicultural Britain” according to the press release blurb. A statement that, while certainly true, does little to prepare you for the book’s many pleasures. This is novel about personal identity, as much as about cultural identity, about the bonds between siblings and the condition of being a twin. Her characters’ mixed race background does not provide the main thrust of the narrative and to drag out the new Zadie Smith tag once again would be journalistically lazy.
Georgia and Bessie are twin sisters, the daughters of a Nigerian mother and a father who hails from the Wye Valley. They share an attic room in their Neasden terrace which they have labelled 26a, and their own separate little world, that older sister Bel and younger sister Kemy can never quite penetrate. Growing up in 1980s Britain we trace their story via Princess Diana’s wedding on the television, flapjack baking sessions and adolescent obsessions with Michael Jackson. Georgia’s personality comes through the strongest; more sensitive than her sister, she is worried about her weight, and is always keen to protect Bessie from the cruel, dark things that exist in this world. And when their father’s job uproots the family from their London lives and moves them to Nigeria for a three year contract, it is Georgia who suffers an ugly assault at the hands of their new groundskeeper.
Evans’ use of language is rich and distinct, her eye for unexpected detail sharp. There’s something magpie-like about her writing, flitting from interesting image to quirky turn of phrase, in a sometimes erratic fashion. Endearingly divided into a series of ‘bits’ – the ‘first bit’, the ‘second bit’, the ‘best bit’ – the narrative could do with a little more structure, it meanders, occasionally aimlessly, through the events of the twins’ lives. While the standard of writing is always high there are some passages of the novel that are rather knotty and confusing, too many ideas and images colliding. As the girls grow older, and start to both desire and fear the inevitable increase of separateness in the lives, Georgia descends into depression – she becomes more and more withdrawn. Tragedy seems increasingly unavoidable.
Evans, who has herself experienced the loss of a twin, writes with real passion in these last pages. She provides a glimpse of what it might be like to be like to lose someone who was so much a part of you, to become one after a lifetime of twoness. Georgias’s voice is still strong during this final section, as Bessie struggles with the emotional and spiritual process of letting go of her sister. For a novel so adept at describing the small things, the flapjacks and hamsters and electric blue dresses, it is also continually willing to engage with greater ideas, with things bigger than this world. This last section doesn’t really work, doesn’t really have the emotional impact you would expect – the loss of a twin must be one of the hardest things to convey, such a deep, unique pain – it was never going to be an easy task. But Evans introduces too many new elements into her story at such a late stage and then rushes too quickly towards her conclusion. This section, as with the rest of the novel, contains numerous moments of offbeat beauty, but it tries to do too many things and ends up in a bit of a muddle.