Symbiosis by Guy Portman

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Talulah and Taliah are twins. Their father is a decent fellow, but not the most imaginative of souls, while their mother is a woman from the Caribbean who wears her heart on her sleeve at all times. The twins are inseparable and, much to the frustration of the adults in their lives, even have their own language. This exclusive means of communication – Cryptophasia – is not uncommon between twins, but it acts as both a bond between the two girls, and an impenetrable barrier to outsiders.

When Siegfried, a disreputable teenage poseur with a purple Mohican haircut, arrives at the twins’ school his blend of second-hand anarchist rhetoric, backed up by wealthy and indulgent parents, makes him the class heart-throb. Talia is particularly smitten, and after a disastrous experiment with LSD, the pair are drawn into Siegfried’s obsession with fire-starting. He escapes detection, but the twins are not so lucky, and they recover from their one-sided encounter with the delusory drug to find themselves incarcerated in a psychiatric institution for young people.

For the first time in their lives Taliah and Talulah are separated and there is a strange and compelling reversal of roles as the girls begin to show contrasting character traits. The institution operates on the basis of patients being rewarded for good behaviour. They can progress from being in padded cells up through the different wards of the hospital until they reach a stage where they are allowed to live an almost normal lifestyle, albeit still under the watchful of the medical staff.

There are echoes of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as we meet the other patients in the hospital, but more compelling is the way in which the girls respond in different ways to the therapies they are prescribed. There is a palpable irony in the counterpoint between the chemical cosh on offer in the wards, and the LSD which tipped Talia and Talulah over the edge in the first place. Not all of the staff are portrayed with sympathy, particularly the manic Dr Vitali, who is in great need of taking some of his own medicine.

This is not your average crime thriller. In the tale of Talulah and Taliah there isn’t much criminal activity at all, but whenever twins are concerned there is always the possibility of deception and deceit, which can – and, in this case does – have violent consequences. One of the cover blurbs calls the book, “A valuable addition to the monozygotic canon.” I am not certain if there is such a thing, but I do remember the dark arts practised by the twins Lily and Rose in John Fowles’ epic 1965 novel, The Magus.

Portman’s previous novel Necropolis was a very different beast. Symbiosis contains similarly bizarre characters, particularly some of the staff at the hospital where the twins are incarcerated. In Symbiosis there are few belly laughs, or gasps of amazement at audacious narrative twists and tricks that can be found in Necropolis.

This is a much more subtle book, but one which further cement’s Portman’s reputation as one of our most innovative and challenging writers. All does not end well, and there remains the frightening possibility that the twins have played some terrible trick on each other and those around them. My reservation – and it is an important one – is that the novel does not sit comfortably in the crime genre. Portman has written a perceptive and harrowing story which will appeal to anyone who admires fine writing, but those looking for a more straightforward tale of good versus evil will not find it here.


CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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