This article aims to provide an innovative close reading of Diana Evans’ 26a (2006). Instead of approaching themes of national and cultural identity, or confusion hereof, this black and British author offers a meditation on same and other by way of threshold positions such as life and death, human and nonhuman, real and supernatural. Generally overlooked by critics, telepathy, body inhabitation and vampire characteristics especially facilitate the novel’s navigation and negotiation of conventional self/other boundaries, demonstrating the complexities of the contemporary network world. Before delving into issues of the undead dead, however, an introduction to the storyline and key subject matter is essential.
In short, Diana Evans’ Orange prize-winning debut accounts for the first twenty five years of the twin girl protagonists’ growth to maturity. Alongside an elder and younger sister, Bessi and Georgia grow up within the forlorn marriage of a white British father and black Nigerian mother. Apart from three years in Nigeria during childhood, the scene is northwest London suburbia. While wit and the original employment of myth and mystique characterize the narration, the narrative, nevertheless, steers sadly towards the depression and subsequent suicide of Georgia.
As opposed to concentrating on cultural conflict, a likely course considering the background of the writer and protagonist, this multicultural author’s thematic emphasis is on the protagonists’ navigation of twinship, of entangled same and other, and fantastic facets thereof. Mixed colour and immigrant descent are not the main subjects of debate. With the exception of surprisingly few remarks on the topic, hybridity simplyis. Notions of Home and self are most intensively articulated within considerations of identical twins’ coupled bodies and telepathically coupled souls, and therefore primarily oriented inwards, not outwards towards nation or race debates. The idea of identical twins as simultaneously independent beings and mirror images of a sibling other implicitly centres narrative discourse on unhomely homes.
Whereas same and other are irreversibly entwined, real and unreal similarly chorus indecisively on the literary scene of identity reflection, contemplating self by way of the undead dead and strange unearthly others. Recognition of network existence as a mere factual practice of the urban transcultural everyday furnishes Evans to situate creativity in doubles and this reader to focus analysis on consequent identity dialectics.
Twins encompass each other, though only to a certain extent. They are individuals, but again not completely so. Dual selfhood comprises continuous play with doubles, a disruption of discrete inside-outside dichotomies. Eventually, however, adolescence and the outside ‘world of separation’ arrive to part Bessi and Georgia, greater London confusing the symbiotic childhood oneness of restricted 26a Waifer Avenue and suburban Neasden familiarity (Evans, 2006, 85). Separation paradoxically feels ‘like being halved and doubled at the same time’ (Evans, 2006, 86). Unavoidable disparity and social strangeness come to be felt more intensely by Georgia than by her sister. Countering Bessi’s eye for the potentials of ‘London’s crooked beauty’ is the hesitant anxiety of Georgia’s reactions to inner city bustle and buzz (Evans, 2006, 169). The former wants to ‘conquer the world’, but while her viewpoint is set on greater city and global outreach, the perspective of the latter turns gradually more inwards towards the immediately local and personal, away from the social (Evans, 2006, 160).
In addition to the darkness of separation, settling as ‘an old grey cloak’ upon her shoulders, the ‘great black hand’ of childhood sexual assault, an incident that deprived Georgia of her ‘sunlight’ and ‘the now-ness of things’, becomes all dominant (Evans, 2006, 150, 152, 181, 71). The effect is recognition of herself as their darker side of character, Bessi as the lighter: ‘You are light, I am shade’ (Evans, 2006, 183). Sexual offence inserts itself as a phallic wedge in between intuitive twin linkage as light-hearted Bessi does not recognize or suffer contamination of dirty, dark memories of violation. ‘It was the first time ever, in this land of twoness in oneness, that something had seemed unsayable’ (Evans, 2006, 69).
Paradoxically, ethereal apparitions of twins arrive to guide Georgia towards mortal departure from twinhood, completing mythical African premonitions that ‘it was not a good idea to separate twins, or kill them. Terrible things can happen’ (Evans, 2006, 64). Outcomes are fatal. For the duration of a year following suicide, though, the dead sister inhabits and, to some extent, controls parts of the body of the living. The two openly communicate with each other before eventually acknowledging the impossible permanence of the situation and executing the necessary exit of the inhabitant sibling, Georgia leaving Bessi’s world of ‘blood and bones and skin’ for ‘the night birds’ and ‘the evergreen tree’ (Evans, 2006, 230).
Throughout, the narrative proffers increasing numbers of supernatural presences and otherworldly discourses. Outlines of witches and devils, vampires and ghosts, doppelgängers, spirit possession, clairvoyance and telepathy emerge as the reader witnesses human contact with realms both prior and subsequent to life, and worlds simultaneously present in or alongside earthly existence. It is towards this interaction, at a number of levels and modes, between life, death and supernatural otherness that the analysis will now turn.
Twinhood embraces instinctive telepathy. For example, ‘While Georgia raised her hand in 2G […] Bessi raised her hand in 2B’, and as a result of her sister’s scream of pain ‘in her sleep, Bessi felt her face throb’ (Evans, 2006, 87, 68). What is more, a moment of teenage shoplifting stimulates direct narrator commentary on this matter, ‘[i]n a hasty telepathy of embarrassment they decided’, and a number of dreamland rendezvous between the sisters equally support extrasensory reality (Evans, 2006, 89). Therefore, once bodily and psychical telepathy expands into the hereafter, in the form of body inhabitation, it seems a somewhat natural extension of its worldly configuration.
Albeit in the context of cinema, Tom Ruffles distinguishes two possession story categories:
those with a living person occupied by another identifiable, but dead, individual, and later films […] which feature possession by an evil spirit that may never have been alive. (Ruffles, 2004, 97)
At first glance, 26a belongs to the former, the occupant of Bessi being easily recognizable. Yet, where Evans’ example can be seen to reside uneasily between above categories is in the question of Georgia’s genuine humanity, so to speak. Allegedly not an ‘evil spirit’, nonetheless, the narrative continuously presents evidence of doubt as to whether she may ever ‘have been alive’ or, more to the point, whether she ever belonged to the realm of mankind. ‘Georgia, the untrue Georgia, the skeleton one, lay tossing into the evening, rubbing her chest with her knuckles – because there was something in there’ (Evans, 2006, 191). Reference to ‘the skeleton one’ does signify life in human form, however, allusions are simultaneously to conventional death imagery, death personifications à la Brueghel, suggesting that while in the human world Georgia is ‘untrue’ to her real nature. Subsequently, fatality and realms beyond life are always already resident within her. ‘I see it, here, my gravestone in my chest! I can’t get it out!’ (Evans, 2006, 192).
Providing that the ‘common thread’ in possession stories ‘is the ability of the deceased to impose his/her/its will on another’ (Ruffles, 2004, 98), Evans further transgresses general definitions in seeing how dead-live Georgia-Bessi communication does not aim at forceful domination of one over the other: ‘I have moved fully into her legs her arms her feet […] I almost fit’ (Evans, 2006, 210). Georgia does not intend to take supreme control, but undertakes to assimilate, to ‘fit’. ‘You are the right of me, I am the left […] I am both of us’ (Evans, 2006, 212/3). Moreover, it is relevant to notice constant changes in the narrative perspective at this point in the storyline, shifting from one sister to the other or referring to the us of Bessi cum Georgia. ‘We reach the flats. We take the stairs’ (Evans, 2006, 211, emphasis added). At first, mutual acknowledgement characterizes this live dead duo, but Bessi does wane in due course, even if not as a result of deliberate sister manipulation. All in all, it seems more accurate to consider this a course of inhabitation, not a resolute act of possession. The inhabitant perpetrator is sympathetic despite negative effects. ‘Forgive me, my darling, I am a thief’ (Evans, 2006, 186).
Similar to how the inhabitation in 26a appears to differ from traditional expressions of the gothic possession story subgenre, current vampire characteristics discourse on intentional-unintentional discrepancy. Circumstances do not present a straightforward good versus evil tension. Regardless of her intentions, Georgia’s occupation renders her sister immobile, and, by the same token, agendas to keep darkness from Bessi fall short of the ultimate emergence of subliminal darkness:
Georgia waited for Bessi to unlock the door. When she came out, there was a tinge of grey in her face and crimson in one cheek and her eyes were hollow and dim. It frightened Georgia, that look. She had seen it many times before, in the mirror. It didn’t belong in Bessi’s eyes. It was essential that Bessi remain in a strictly yellow place. I am a thief, she thought as she climbed the stairs after her. I have stolen from you. (Evans, 2006, 183)
This leads us to readings on the complexities of vampirism in the novel. Myth and folklore tales incorporating figures or aspects of the vampire are a historically worldwide phenomenon. Rather than limit definitions to replica of Bram Stoker or Anne Rice’s perhaps most well-known exemplars, suggestions as to what constitutes a vampire are as rich as the number of cultures and times accommodating them. Following Margaret L. Carter:
[s]upernatural entities falling under the general classification of ‘vampire’ include many varieties of blood-drinking demons as well as the animated dead that prey on the living, often feeding on blood but sometimes on other body fluids or simply spreading disease, draining life-force, or frightening victims to death […] Internationally, vampires range from men who return from the grave to live with and impregnate their widows to grotesque revenants who could not possibly be mistaken for ordinary people. (Carter, 2007, 619/20)
Even if 26a is no horror tale per se, viewing narrative development of twinship in line with vampire behaviour is feasible, Georgia could be described in terms of the ‘animated dead that prey on the living’, or as a ‘draining life-force’. Parasite aggressors need not be purely antagonistic, nor need victims be plentiful, innocent or randomly selected in order for the story to meet some of the subgenre criteria. In Western literary and cultural history the vampire is no unambiguous vice. Both prior to and principally subsequent to the iniquity of Stoker’s Count Dracula, versions of this undead dead have stressed other, more empathetic characteristics and removed the vampire from isolation, inserting him into intimate contact with everyday society and mortality. ‘The differing perspectives on the ‘new’ sympathetic vampire as either ‘rebellious’ or ‘domesticated’ points to a deep ambiguity in the lure of the vampire’ (Williamson, 2005, 32, emphasis added). In place of a malevolent foreigner, the vampire is seen as the victim of his own vampirism. Consequently, parasitical existence is treated as a form of mental ailment . Milly Williamson explains that:
with the vampire character, more often than not, acting as the narrator, or at least the narrative point of view, offering us Otherness from the inside […] [t]he twentieth century produced a new generation of morally ambiguous, sympathetic vampires who lure audiences with the pathos of their predicament and their painful awareness of outsiderdom. (Williamson, 2005, 28/9)
Their predisposition to suck the life out of fellow human beings therefore is not immediately a cause for fear or social exclusion. The vampire is no longer exiled to remote Transylvanian nights, but capable of living more or less like any other man in contemporary society, the scale of wrongdoing dependent first and foremost on individual dispositions.
In this light, analytic alignment of Georgia’s addictive attachment to energetic life flows in Bessi with vampire inclinations towards blood. Note for the sake of emphasis the entanglement of obsessive dependence and sympathetic objectives within Georgia in the following:
“Everything’s so easy for you, isn’t it… I watch you, anything you set your mind to and it’s done. It drives me mad… I needed somewhere that wasn’t bad. I wanted to be light and happy like you, and I wanted never for you to see the dark. I was scared I would infect you with terrible feelings and pictures in my head of walking out in front of traffic and – No. That’s not for you, see? Not for you to hear. I needed you to be my sunlight, Bessi,” and here Georgia paused and her words became very small, “I lost mine, I lost it.” (Evans, 2006, 180-1)
Much like the victim in Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire novella Carmilla (1872): ‘I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence… I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling’ (Evans, 2006, 251). Georgia finds it difficult to translate into words the troubling terrors haunting her. It was not only her addiction to sibling light, but also the shadowy role of the outsider in conjunction with her fatal destiny and sexual unease that troubled her. These are all features typically associated with the vampire, and thus further serve to underline this connection, her continuation as undead parasite even more so.
Taunted by depression and lacking in conscious evil deliberation, Evans’ main protagonist exemplifies ‘the depiction of emotional states and the experience of interior conflicts’ which Williamson explained characterized a twentieth century shift in the genre (Williamson, 2005, 31). Draining her boyfriend of musical life and her sister of sunlight, notwithstanding, the mental conflict is the one recognized as vampirism-inflicting perpetrator. ‘In the middle of the night, Georgia felt a knocking against her skull. It was a devil […] a distortion, something utterly without pity’ (Evans, 2006, 188). Her therapist suggests that depression ‘becomes something that lives, a monster […] [that] has taken on its own flesh’ (Evans, 2006, 184). Overtaking its subject, the condition tiptoes into her body, as dusk forewarning the day about night, captured ‘walking in through the bay window with a fearless slender stride’ (Evans, 2006, 189). Inherent innocence is buried alive in the tomb of vampirism, and answers to the query ‘”She never really liked it here, did she?”’ are in the negative (Evans, 2006, 219). ‘A stranger in the room, not a human stranger, a thing, a demon, watching her closely’ prevents any adjustment to human life, that is, ‘wherever she went the devil found her’ (Evans, 2006, 173, 190). Instead, it ‘lay on her the hands of death […] It said, Get up, spin spin spin around, you will never find a sleep!’ (Evans, 2006, 173, original emphasis). Suicidal death by hanging twenty pages later lies as implicit premonition in here. Hence, ‘vampires long to die’, Nina Auerbach argues, ‘they embody not fear of death, but of life: their power and their curse is their undying vitality’ (Aeurbach, 1995, 5).
Alive she is haunted by devilish tendency towards depression, in death she can be seen to change into the perpetrator herself. Onlookers come to treat Georgia’s parasitical dead life in Bessi as negative aggression, ‘convinced that Satan was attacking Bessi the way he had attacked Job’ (Evans, 2006, 223).
If a person suffers a poisonous vampire attack, she will eventually turn to vampirism herself ‘the itching, the fever, the sadness in Bessi’s face and the dark shadows gathering around her eyes’ (Evans, 2006, 223). Consequently, in line with traditional vampire motif, Georgia must be removed, voluntarily or otherwise, so as to prevent the occupied from fading irreversibly from the human social world and withdrawing instead into the shadows of her sister. What is more, uncanny sentiment inflects those who approach dead undead twin alliance. Georgia’s ex-boyfriend, for instance: ‘twists away from, signifying the unhomeliness and subsequent invalidity of this corporal double’ (Evans, 2006, 215).
Thus, as the above examples would illustrate, vampirism is itself a vamipiric infliction upon the vampire. ‘Vampires are neither inhuman nor nonhuman nor all-too-human; they are simply more alive than they should be’ (Auerbach, 1995, 6). Sufferer and antagonist paradoxically come together in one body leaving good/bad, alive/dead and real/unreal binaries irreversibly entangled, momentarily. Identity complexities will be discussed in more detail below; at present, however, comparative readings of 26a and Le Fanu’s Carmilla will serve to support vampire readings of the former. Both vampire narratives share a lack of blood and mutilation, crucifixes and garlic, but revel instead, uncannily, in a ‘boundless capacity for intimacy’ (Auerbach, 1995, 45).
In short, Carmilla revolves around on the life of a British father and daughter living in a remote Styrian castle, a lonely paradise harmony disrupted initially by Laura’s childhood dream vision of a woman in her bed, caressing and biting her, and the subsequent reappearance of her, Carmilla, in reality years later. As their house guest, she spins a web of parasitical fascination and dread around her relationship with Laura, her friend and prey, until the former is finally identified as a vampire and destroyed.
Le Fanu’s story is clearly indicative of homosexuality , the depictions of the girls’ first encounter being no exception: ‘She caressed me with her hands, and lay down beside me on the bed, and drew me towards her, smiling; I felt immediately delightfully soothed’ (LeFanu, 1995, 235). It continues in like course throughout. Despite sisterhood, the connection between Bessi and Georgia in Evans similarly hints at romantic love, often described by the protagonists themselves as a marriage. Early on the twins make plans to die ‘at the same time […] like husbands and wives who didn’t need divorces, until death do us part’ (Evans, 2006, 19). Following suicide Bessi eternalizes their union, exclaiming ‘With these bands of silver, let us marry across the graves. Bessi pushes the ring down’ (Evans, 2006, 218). Compare this excerpt with a similar from Le Fanu: ‘“But to die as lovers may – to die together, so that they may live together”’ (LeFanu, 1995, 256). Furthermore, the very process of inhabitation holds allusions to sexual intercourse:
I shake myself loose throughout her. It is a feeling much sharper than the flute and the aches, it is very close to pain. A tightening of the skin and a sense of being filled up, of teetering on the edge of bursting, like the top of making love. It makes her tremble and drop her fork. I have moved fully into her… Sweat has broken on Bessi’s forehead and there is a glitter inside her cheeks (Evans, 2006, 210).
One is absorbed phallically into the other, generating a sensation akin to orgasm, a classic little death ‘on the edge of bursting’. Now, compare Evans’ twin intimacy with the unusually close friendship in Le Fanu:
[s]he used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear, “Dearest, if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die – die, sweetly die – into mine […] You and I are one for ever.” (LeFanu, 1995, 250/1).
Laura-Carmilla and Bessi-Georgia relations mutually breach barriers of friend- and twinship, growing into complex intermingling. Vampirism, in the words of Auerbach:
is an interchange, a sharing […] vampires were vampires because they loved. They offered an intimacy, a homoerotic sharing, that threatened the hierarchical distance of sanctioned relationships (Aeurbach, 1995, 47, 60, original emphasis).
Both couples are able to meet telepathically in dreams and their connections are equally underscored by a sense of the paranormal. Laura for example exclaims, ‘I knew the visit of the strange woman was not a dream; and I was awfully frightened’ (LeFanu, 1995, 236, original emphasis). Internal shadows and weaknesses of Georgia are mirrored in Carmilla: ‘There was a coldness, it seemed to me, beyond her years, in her smiling melancholy persistent refusal to afford me the least ray of light’ (Le Fanu, 1995, 249); similarly, the trance in which she holds Laura is not unlike the presence of Georgia in Bessi:
[f]ascination increased for a time, until it reached a certain point, when gradually a sense of the horrible mingled itself with it […] and perverted the whole state of my life. (Evans, 2006, 267)
So Laura exclaims, echoing Bessi, a sense of the wrongs and impossibility of the situation gradually dawning upon her  In keeping with Margaret Atwood:
[y]ou can go down into the land of the dead, and then you can get out again, back to the land of the living. But only if you’re lucky […] To go to the land of the dead, to bring back to the land of the living someone who has gone there – it’s a very deep human desire, and thought also to be very deeply forbidden (Atwood, 2002,167-72).
From the first sentence, Evans’ novel can be seen to resound discussions of network identity, not very different from those of Donna Haraway and the field of cyborgology. As the cyborg, in keeping with Haraway, is no mere man-machine blend, twinship exceeds conjunct duality. Bessi and Georgia exist in warped space, encompassing animal, human as well as forms of spiritual, mythic life:
[t]hrough scratchy bramble they scurried, through holes that became warm tunnels and softly lit underground caves. Their paws pressed sweet berries in the long grass and they sniffed each other’s scent to stay together. (Evans, 2006, 3)
Although animal and nature worlds appear to preside from the outset, oncoming birth into humanity is also already contained within the setting, ‘warm tunnels’ and ‘softly lit underground caves’ clearly suggestive of the female womb and birth canal (Evans, 2006, 3). Moreover, emerging paranormal consciousness considered, the transition is neither between animal and human only. The twins are described as ‘creatures’, not animals such as ‘[r]abbits, badgers, walking birds’ but spirits akin to Ode and Onia of Nigerian folklore, ‘best friends from the very beginning, even before they were inside their mother’s womb’ (Evans, 2006, 3, 63). Life predates life as we know it. Furthermore, the ‘doubled icy sun’, an otherworldly comprehension of car headlights, ‘helped explain things’ and ‘reminded them of who they were’, not countryside scenery (Evans, 2006, 3). The natural world of rain, grass and birdsong collides with and is transformed directly into a technological, manmade construction: The car supposedly behind ‘the oncoming headlights’ signifies the collision, while the sterile hospital light suggests subsequent conversion:
While their blood seeped into the road they experienced warmth, softness, wet […] Then there was a violent push and they landed freezing cold in surgical electric white, hysterical, blubbering. (Evans, 2006, 4).
Paradoxically, death inaugurates life, darkness a ‘way of beginnings’, twisting categories and borderlines from the very narrative onset (Evans, 2006, 46). Nature and the supernatural, humanity and technology thus appear to come together to create multifaceted existence.
Manifestations of death and life entangled are pursued throughout, most clearly in undead dead vampire relations. Birth, accompanied by ‘screams and a feeling of being strangled’, not disimilar from the birth canal passage and human sounds associated with traditional childbirth, is referred to as a killing and does end the lives of Bessi and Georgia as ‘two furry creatures’, temporarily at least (Evans, 2006, 4, 3). Nonetheless, the twins remain in contact with unearthly life whether it be via apparitions or telepathy. Driving past the scene of a traffic accident at which a woman lies dying, for example, extrasensory ‘Georgia caught a wisp of her left in the front seat … and a faint smell of regret’ (Evans, 2006, 12). Likewise, pre-life twin constitution hovers in memory:
She remembered all that time and space ago, two furry creatures with petrified eyes, staring into the headlights, the engine surging, the lights threatening blindness […] After a pause, Bessi said: “I think, sometimes, that we weren’t made for this world.” Georgia stroked her. She remembered it too. “I know, darling. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, all this time.” (Evans, 2006, 163)
Diverse forms of life and plural worlds communicate. Life, death and multiple forms of being coincide in the initial pages, instigating at that a highly complex form of existence, an ‘extra dimension. The one after sight, sound, smell, touch and taste where the world multiplied and exploded’ (Evans, 2006, 5). Self is like Wednesdays: ‘in the middle of the beginning and the end when all things tumbled, things tossed’ (Evans, 2006, 7).
In keeping with Julia Kristeva, ‘[l]iving with the other […] is not simply […] a matter of our being able to accept the other, but of being in his place’ (Kristeva, 1991, 13, original emphasis). Accepting otherness as part of the same, one self would make possible an existential dimension or world outline clear of rigid binaries and categorical divisions. Still, differences are still at play. Acknowledging complexities does not entail unified cohesion, on the contrary. It brings about a world of new potential in which ‘Bright was twice as bright. All the colours were extra’ (Evans, 2006, 5).
Human form seems to bind beings in fixed self understanding. Once Georgia places focus outside her sensorial human body, by means of death, the world and its network structures become evident and usable:
I discover that I can leave her when she sleeps. I stretch out and enter the mouths of the night birds. I paint the night with the flowers and discover that I am all of this, everything my body made me forget (Evans, 2006, 216, emphasis added).
In keeping with cyborg theory, the world comprises of multiple, interlinked networks in which humanity is not supreme. Evans’ permeation of boundaries, between individuals at first and, in that, between individualized entities, self and other, human and non-human, serves to illustrate and investigate the complexity of identity and idea of home today. Employing identical twins, doublegängers by definition, the intricate positive-negative network of one and other is set into play.
The crisscrossing of boundaries, groupings, levels and species does not entail an annihilation of these. If all was fluent and in flux it would be unclear to what extent a line had in fact been crossed, hence, the line persists. It is crucial instead to note contemporary permeability of traditionally fixed confines; the removal of authoritarian border control. Boundary crossing does not necessitate eradication of distinction; it inserts an and in between. Thus, Georgia embodies human qualities, those of her sister and herself, as well as animal, supernatural and mythical characteristics, and although the exact measure of the combination is unclear, it is nevertheless a combination, not an unworkable identity haze. We are dealing neither with blends nor mere coexistences.
The threshold, this reader would like to emphasize, is not a void given that it comprises of entrance and exit at once. It is a matter of contemplating self and world as a flexible network construct of plural dimensions and formations of life, always already entangled with others in negative and positive mode. As opposed to approaching matters as a neither/nor, one might envision a both/and situation, one of home and non-home, self and other, even if it is an uncanny one. The sympathetic vampire is able to communicate this, as are telepathy, body inhabitation, twinship and other extraordinary states of threshold existence depicted above.
- Unless otherwise specified all quotations, including subtitles, are from Evans 2006.
- Williamson 29-50. Punter and Byron 268-72. Auerbach 1.
- Carter 623. Auerbach 38-60.
- More parallels do exist, but the above will suffice to underscore comparisons.
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