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Chang and Eng [Paperback]

Darin Strauss
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 3 2001
In this stunning novel, Darin Strauss combines fiction with astonishing fact to tell the story of history’s most famous twins. Born in Siam in 1811—on a squalid houseboat on the Mekong River—Chang and Eng Bunker were international celebrities before the age of twenty. Touring the world’s stages as a circus act, they settled in the American South just prior to the Civil War. They eventually married two sisters from North Carolina, fathering twenty-one children between them, and lived for more than six decades never more than seven inches apart, attached at the chest by a small band of skin and cartilage.

Woven from the fabric of fact, myth, and imagination, Strauss’s narrative gives poignant, articulate voice to these legendary brothers, and humanizes the freakish legend that grew up around them. Sweeping from the Far East and the court of the King of Siam to the shared intimacy of their lives in America, Chang and Eng rescues one of the nineteenth century’s most fabled human oddities from the sideshow of history, drawing from their extraordinary lives a novel of exceptional power and beauty.

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From Amazon

Narrated by Eng, one of a pair of conjoined twins, Chang and Eng is a daring novel that constantly threatens to lose its balance. It's also one that would be hard to believe were it not rigorously grounded in historical fact. Like the (literally) inseparable protagonists of Darin Strauss's debut, Chang and Eng Bunker were born in the early 1800s in a rainy village on the shores of the Mekong Delta. Achieving instant fame as the "Siamese double boy," they toured freak shows throughout China, Europe, and North America. Eventually they settled in North Carolina (of all places), married a pair of sisters, and fathered 21 children between them.

This fictionalized version of their story is narrated by the stronger, more circumspect twin, Eng, who must continually urge Chang to restrain his tears, his burning sexual desires, and his fear of the King of Siam (who has promised to "kill the double-child, the bad omen"). From the beginning, Strauss masterfully delineates the brothers' differences. Yet it's the porous nature of their relationship that will fascinate readers even more. The twins, after all, must always sleep face to face, connected by a fleshy band and the knowledge of their shared monstrosity. The fact that they are neither "he" nor "we" allows the author myriad opportunities for wordplay and psychological riddles. Does Chang love his brother, or does he love himself? When he hates his brother, is it only a piece of himself he is hating? Might the connecting band be its own entity, a pet that the brothers must tend to and feed? When they were children, Eng recalls, the band

was about two inches long, and Chang loved it. He called it Tzon, or ripe banana, and wailed if ever I mentioned severing it. It was more taut then, and would crackle like an old knee when we inched closer or farther apart (no one had any idea the thing would grow with us, and one day allow lateral positioning). I often fidgeted with a stretch of brown leathery skin--a hairy birthmark--midway across it, and also a little brown dot, a charming dinky island that lived, insolently, just free from the shoreline of the larger birthmark.
The novel's agile prose is like a smooth, strong current, pulling the twins away from their awkward lives. To his great credit, Strauss spends very little time dwelling on Chang and Eng as monsters, and their freak-show existence surfaces only in short, painful flashbacks--a jeering interlude that the narrator would sooner forget. And Eng's voice is a compelling one, full of quips, insecurities, and jealousy. Indeed, at some moments he seems like a standard-issue Renaissance man, reading Shakespeare in the afternoon, dreaming about pretty women, recounting his extensive travels. Yet the tragic fact remains: no matter how many countries this cosmopolitan visits, he will never have a room to himself. --Emily White --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In his stunning debut, Strauss fictionalizes the lives of famous conjoined brothers Chang and Eng Bunker, whose physical oddity prompted the term Siamese twins. With compelling characterizations and precise, powerful prose, this audacious work should appeal equally to fans of historical, psychological and literary fiction. Born in the Kingdom of Siam in 1811, the twins are joined together at the chest by a seven-inch-long ligament that contains a part of their stomach, the only organ they share. Apart from this band of flesh, they are completely separate individuals with different personalities and needs. Serious and reserved Eng narrates their story, which begins on their parents' boat on the Mekong River. They are soon the object of curiosity, condemned to death when they are six years old by Siam's superstitious King Rama, who then changes his mind and exploits them as freaks. An unscrupulous American promoter brings them to America in 1825. Eng reads Shakespeare, preaches temperance and, all his life, wishes desperately to be separated. Chang is outgoing and garrulous, drinks heavily (which angers Eng, who must also experience the effects of Chang's indulgence) and cannot see himself as less than two. As young boys, the first time the brothers see other children their own age, their philosophical differences are apparent: "'They are half formed!' Chang whispered. To me [Eng] they seemed liberated." The brothers find celebrity as a circus act (displayed in a cage) in the U.S. and abroad, become aware of the political tumult preceding the Civil War, and marry sisters in North Carolina and father 21 children between them--yet this dense fiction succeeds as far more than sensational expos?. The author gracefully confronts the complicated issues of race, gender, infidelity, and identity, as well as the notion of what is normal. Strauss's vivid imagination, assiduous research and instinctive empathy find expression in a vigorous, witty prose style that seduces the reader and delivers gold in a provocative story of two extraordinary men who wish only to be seen as ordinary. Agent, John Hodgman. (June) FYI: Strauss was featured in "A Budding Crop of First Fiction" (PW, Jan. 10).
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Creative Decisions Undermine Interesting Story May 15 2004
The story of Chang and Eng Bunker's long, interesting existence is rife with literary possibilities. Strauss certainly does a good job of arranging these possibilities, particularly during the scenes set in Thailand. Among the questions he subtly lays out for the reader to ponder are:
What role does privacy have in shaping an individual's personality?
How would we develop if we had to continually share our existence with another individual?
Were Chang and Eng really two halves of one person?
Would we see Chang and Eng any differently than our ancestors saw them?
Given these interesting questions, one would think that Chang and Eng is an extraordinary book. Sadly, it never realized its potential. This failure stemmed from Strauss' decision to center the book on Chang. Having only one person narrate the story seemed to be an odd creative choice for a novel that is about the (arguably) world's most famous pair of Siamese twins. It's possible that Strauss made the decision to focus the story after having trouble finding a suitable voice for Eng. However, instead of focusing the story, I was left wanting more narrative devoted to Eng's character. Specifically, I wanted to know who Eng was and what he was feeling, instead of having Chang filter those depictions and feelings through his narration. By the time I finished the book, I felt I had read a story that should have been titled "Chang."
Usually, I enjoy it when a book leaves me wanting more. That's especially true when a book contains vivid depictions of locations and interesting philosophical questions. But, in the case of Chang and Eng, these strengths were overshadowed by incomplete characterization in both the main characters and the supporting characters. I can only hope that Strauss' next work is a book that gives appropriate depth to all its characters.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing and Entertaining Dec 5 2002
When I was a little girl, the Guinness Book of World Records fascinated me. I have very vivid memories of staring, intrigued, at the photo of Chang and Eng Bunker, the "first" Siamese twins. That very same photo now sits on the cover of Darin Strauss' elegantly written novel, *Chang and Eng*. I suppose that fascination is what drew me to read the book, and Strauss does not disappoint.
The story really belongs to Eng, the more serious (and less prone to drink), brother. He struggles throughout with conflicting feelings of love for his brother and his passionate desire to be free of him. (If you've read *I Know This Much To Be True* by Wally Lamb, this is reminiscent of the lead character's conflicted relationship with his schizophrenic twin, though Eng's struggle is further complicated by the simple fact that he physically *cannot* leave his brother.) Eng also struggles with his feelings of desire for his brother's wife, and with his need to be respected as an intelligent man, not a spectacle.
While I cannot say how much more I truly know about the Bunkers given that this is not a biography but a novel, I was intrigued and entertained by both the story and Strauss' graceful language.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Monster? Man? Men? Oct. 15 2002
I loved this book! I could not put it down from the first paragraph to the very last! It's a historical romance, biography, fiction all in one. It's hard to categorize it.
It's a beautiful novel and I enjoyed it very much.
I'd recommend it to anyone and especially people who are interested in the off the wall or strange.
There is a lot of history in this book it tells about Siam, London and North Carolina back in the 1800's and what people were like in both cultures at the time and how the twins were treated.
How they fell in love, had sexual relations and 21 children.
They had seperate personalities and minds but would jump into a handstand without a word passed between them. Amazing! Interesting!
You can't really tell what is fiction or true which left me wondering but the author did a good job at making it all seem very believable. You can almost believe that it is Eng who wrote the book.
The author had such a great understanding of what it must of been like to be connected to someone for over 60 years, maybe because he is a twin himself.
He did a good job making it enjoyable and interesting.
Read this book if your looking for something that you can't put down!!!
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2.0 out of 5 stars Who-centric? Aug. 21 2002
I approached this novel with high expectations, and (being a twin) definite curiousity about the life of conjoined twins. (I can't even begin to imagine.) I found the prose style rather forgettable and non-alarming at best; the structure of the novel to be decently executed: It begins at the end, and chapters alternate between past and present (sometimes several chapters in a block).
The brothers only want to be "normal" - insofar as being able to live in separated bodies - but in the context of their (forced) immigration to the US, the novel reads as valorizing assimilation/rejection of home culture. Since Eng is the narrator, the reader is aligned with him, and he is touted as the more "sympathetic" character. He is articulate in his English, reads Shakespeare, and has "assimilated" more than his brother - who is, with his slightly off English and his drinking problem, demonized. The brothers also do not speak their native Thai between themselves (which puzzles me).
In sum, an interesting historical perspective and insight into conjoined twins' lives, but who-centric is the novel, really?
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Sad. Unrelentingly...sad.
I had to force my way through this novel. The premise...loss of independence, loss of privacy, loss of identity...was enough to depress me time and again. Read more
Published on Aug. 11 2010 by Schmadrian
1.0 out of 5 stars unconvincing
Unconvincing fictional account of the lives of Chang and Eng, told in the first person. First person fictional novels about real people are usually unconvincing - this is a long... Read more
Published on May 28 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Imaginative, funny, a great read.
There were a few hard to believe scences (the lynching) but overall, this was a suprising, interesting and wonderfully warm historical novel.
Published on Dec 4 2003 by J. Israel
3.0 out of 5 stars If you want your voyeuristic side satisfied.. . .
this is the book for you. Strauss knows that as soon as anyone hears that Chang and Eng were married and had 21 children between them the possible "mechanics" of that situation... Read more
Published on Oct. 10 2002 by Liz Cary
2.0 out of 5 stars Glad I didn't pay retail
Very interesting subject matter but no real "plot" for what is supposed to be a novel.
Published on July 12 2002 by plum9195
1.0 out of 5 stars fiction fantasy
Being from Thailand I was drawn to the cover of the book.After having read the book I was appalled. I know the book is fiction, but using names and words that doesn't exist and... Read more
Published on June 27 2002 by a thai reader in america
1.0 out of 5 stars fiction fantasy
Being from Thailand I was drawn to the cover of the book.After having read the book I was appalled. I know the book is fiction, but using names and words that doesn't exist and... Read more
Published on June 27 2002 by a thai reader in america
3.0 out of 5 stars It was OK
The author for some reason decided to make the Yates sisters in their 30's when they married. All accounts I have read (including the inscription on their tombstones) are that... Read more
Published on April 26 2002
3.0 out of 5 stars The loneliness of unvarying closeness
Two more lives rescued from the incurious forgetfulness of time. Darin Strauss brings to life the brothers Chang and Eng, whose physical bond is remembered today every time someone... Read more
Published on April 15 2002 by Matthew Hovious
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