Twins are everywhere in fiction at the moment, from Brit Bennett’s bestseller The Vanishing Half to Claire Fuller’s Costa award-winning Unsettled Ground. The challenge for any novelist, of course, is not merely to use twins as an off-the-peg plot device, but to capture the existential experience of growing up in exact parallel to a sibling, or, in the case of identical twins, being the genetic double of another human being. As a twin myself, I’d say Renée Branum’s riddling debut, Defenestrate, gets very close to a true depiction, as Marta and Nick attempt to individuate from each other – first in Prague, and then in a midwest hospital after Nick falls from a fifth-storey window.
Narrated in short, anecdotal chapters, Marta’s first-person account of the twins’ shared life is perceptive and witty. While the impetuous Nick is infatuated with Buster Keaton, a star who “spent his whole life falling”, Marta is gently protective of her brother, whose homosexuality outrages their “painfully devout” mother; a woman who writes out psalms on notes to place above the twins’ beds. Aware of the strangeness of their living together after college, Marta knows they are “buying ourselves some time” before their inevitable adult separation:
We were our whole world, Nick and I, and there was a kind of splendour in that – contained by each other, two yolks sharing an egg. But there was something in that doubling that made me feel all the more fragile – the two of us poised on a sweet precipice before falling blindly forward into the rest of our lives.
The precipice turns out to be more than metaphorical when Nick suffers a fall while apparently trying to feed a rare bird from his window. Marta is suspicious. Was Nick attempting suicide in the fashion of his favourite author, Bohumil Hrabal? In addition, their family history has been plagued with falls and acts of defenestration. Believing they were cursed by their Czech great-great-grandfather, who pushed a stonemason from a Prague church steeple for seducing his daughter, Marta becomes obsessed with historical falls, from the ur-fall in the Garden of Eden onwards: “The fall that has been hanging over us our whole lives.”
While Marta visits a recuperating Nick in hospital, she also battles with her growing dependence on alcohol and harrowing encounters with predatory men. By her brother’s bed, she tries to gain a deeper understanding of their parents and their past; their painful process of individuation, and the restrictions it has exerted over her life. “I didn’t seem to have room at the time to love and worry over my brother while giving whatever was left over to someone else.” Eventually, she realises she will have to accept her own fall from the prelapsarian innocence of a shared childhood: “As a kid, I assumed that if we were going to fall, we’d fall together. Twinned … I have begun to realise, we must follow each other separately.”
What this meditative, fragmentary novel lacks in narrative propulsion it makes up for in digressional detail. There’s also much sparkling imagery, including fin-de-siècle Prague “preening and polishing itself like a vast peacock, with slate and granite and sandstone feathers”. While its obsession with historical correspondences and coincidences can be overly schematic, the book’s single-minded focus on violent death by falling is almost Ballardian in its macabre beauty.
Defenestrate is an original and engaging novel from a fresh new voice, one deeply committed to understanding the beguiling experience of twinship, and to writing twins from the inside. As Marta reflects: “Perhaps the world will always seem a little too large or too small, once you’ve shared a womb with someone.”