"It's really magical being a twin," says Diana Evans, 33, from her West London home. "You just feel very special, like you're born with a best friend. It's this feeling of security. You get excited that you have this other person; you do things together, rather than on your own." The emotional bonds of twindom are at the heart of 26a (Chatto and Windus; 230 pages), Evans' compelling first novel. And yet, as Evans knows all too well, there can be a dark side to twin magic. Her twin sister, Paula, suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1998. "Paula's death," says Evans, "made me focus on what I really wanted to do."
What Evans really wanted to do was write. After dancing in an African troupe in the British seaside city of Brighton during and after university, she went to work as arts-and-music editor for the London-based black women's magazine Pride, nurturing her poetry and fiction on the side. When she had a rough draft of 26a, she took it to the Creative Writing M.A. course at the University of East Anglia and honed it there. With a high-powered agent on board, 26a after a hotly contested auction went to Chatto and Windus as part of a two-book deal. Ostensibly a chronicle of two decades in the life of the Hunter family in a shabby patch of North London, the novel's real vitality lies in the relationship between twin sisters Georgia and Bessi.
Evans has a sharp eye for the quotidian charms the strawberry-scented beanbag chairs and baked-bean sandwiches of the girls' childhood in "the wilderness of Neasden." School friends quickly develop a written classification system to tell the sisters apart, but the twins remain oddities; classmates can't even spell Bessi's name right: "Georgia has big ears, Bessie don't." But the twins' suburban idyll is sometimes disturbed by the fear that their parents might divorce. Nigerian mother Ida finds her English husband Aubrey cold and distant. Their differing temperaments lead to occasional violent clashes, but they stay together, thanks to "the canyons of love a child can throw open."
Outside the family's sometimes shaky cocoon (their house is No. 26; the book's
title refers to the twins' space in its loft), Georgia and Bessi have another place, mental as well as physical, that only they share. "This was the extra dimension," Evans writes. "The one after sight, sound, smell, touch and taste where the world multiplied and exploded because it was the sum of two people. Bright was twice as bright. All the colors were extra. Girls with umbrellas skipped across the wallpaper and Georgia and Bessi could hear them laughing."
But can and should this special intimacy be maintained? Evans believes that the closeness of twins can come at a price; they never fully learn how to be themselves. "There are issues of independence and individuality, and the idea that you're seen by other people as one person," she explains. "You feel like people aren't really seeing all of you." As Evans' fictional twins grow up, their struggle to assert themselves becomes starkly apparent. Bessi finds work in the music industry, while Georgia retreats into depression and her history studies, increasingly unable to handle daily life.
Evans graphically charts Georgia's descent into an emotional paralysis that makes simply buying a carton of milk an immense effort. "If she did brave [a trip to the store] ... she found more problems. The mini-mart was out of semi-skimmed. The milk aisle was crawling with human beings." Ultimately, not even her special bond with Bessi can prevent Georgia from being overpowered by inner demons.
Evans writes with the pained passion that can only come from personal experience. "We did hold on to that magical quality," she says of her relationship with Paula. "But it was just different as we got older. You value that relationship just as much as you did, but you [become] aware that you can't depend on this relationship in the way that you used to, because it's going to hinder you as an adult."
Neither this awareness, nor her sister's death, has dampened her enthusiasm for life and work. Evans, who lives with her partner of eight years and their 12-week-old daughter, is back to juggling journalism with the beginnings of her second novel. If she can reproduce the frank, bittersweet voice of her debut, then her writing career, too, may end up being magical.