The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh
When Lucy Brennan, a Miami Beach personal-fitness trainer, disarms a gunman chasing two frightened homeless men, the police and the breaking-news cameras are not far behind and, within hours, Lucy is a media hero. The solitary eye-witness is the depressed and overweight Lena Sorensen, who becomes obsessed with Lucy and signs up as her client – though she seems more interested in the trainer’s body than her own. When the two women find themselves more closely aligned, and can’t stop thinking about the sex lives of Siamese twins, the real problems start…
Superficially Lucy and Lena couldn’t really be more different. Lucy is toned and trim with a sharp tongue and an extrovert nature. Her foul mouth and gung-ho attitude towards life seems like the perfect tools to navigate life in the self-obsessed environment of Miami Beach. Lena meanwhile is the polar opposite. Overweight, introspective and shy she hides away from the world. Where Lucy appears confident and strong, Lena is weak willed and easily lead. A chance meeting brings the two together and it’s not long before they both realise that appearances can be more than a little deceptive.
I love the way that Welsh’s characters often verge on the very cusp of the grotesque, but he never allows them to cross that line. He is such a keen observer of humanity and seems to be able to get to the very core of all his characters with ease. Both Lucy and Lena are riddled with flaws but that’s what makes them so compelling. It makes them come across as realistic and human. Certain aspects of the characters remind me of people that I’ve met before. When it comes to fiction, flawed protagonists are always fascinating to follow, and in The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins the reader is spoiled for choice.
The better Lucy gets to know Lena, the darker the story becomes. There are a series of chapters where Lena recalls her history and they offer real insight into how events in her life have shaped everything about her and her world-view. From her upbringing in a small town, through her time in art school, right up until the moment where she and Lucy first meet; all of these moments leave their mark.
As events begin to spiral out of each woman’s control, Welsh uses the paradigm shifts in their relationship to explore modern attitudes towards everything from sex and death, to celebrity culture, body image and religion. Fiction that challenges pre-conceived notions and demands introspection really doesn’t come much better than this.
I remember way back in the early 90s and the first time I cracked open a copy of Trainspotting, though I was born and grew up only fifty miles away from where the novel was set this was a completely alien world to me. I’d never read anything like it, and I was utterly stunned by how emotive and thought provoking Welsh’s work was. His writing has continued to display that same self-assured confrontational edge over the years. Time has not diminished this author’s ferocious passion one iota. I loved his writing back then and I still love it now.
As is always the case with a new Irvine Welsh novel things are unashamedly adult. I’d imagine there are those who think Welsh’s use of adult language, sex and violence are too extreme but I’d disagree. Yes, sometimes there are scenes that can, in isolation, be viewed as shocking, but within the context of the story they are entirely appropriate and are necessary to move the plot forward. Welsh doesn’t ever pull his punches. He lets the reader make up their own mind and draw their own conclusions, it’s the thing I’ve always found most enjoyable about his work. He doesn’t pander to anyone he writes from the heart and it shows.
Overall, I found The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins to be mind-bendingly good stuff. The writing dissects every 21st century obsession you could name with a critical flair. There is no aspect of modern society that escapes the author’s steely gaze. Nowadays, it often feels like we exist in a multimedia bubble and Welsh plays with that fact, using it as the basis for his entire narrative. In a world where fame has become an addictive commodity, the big question this novel asks is at what cost?
The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is published by Jonathan Cape Ltd and available from 1st May 2014.