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Twice Lived coverOften in Joma West’s novel Twice Lived, the book’s narrator pauses in the middle of a scene and tells the reader the specific emotions that the characters are currently experiencing and why they are experiencing them. Initially this style of “tell, don’t show” writing struck me as a potential liability, since it runs the risk of flattening much of the nuance that West otherwise could have allowed to build in this story naturally. Over time, however, I started to realize that this quality might actually be functioning more as an expression of the central conflict that Twice Lived explores.

West’s novel is, ultimately, a story about two families who are actively seeking to avoid an imminent experience of grief that looms in their respective futures. Toward this end, these characters are shown to be continually striving to ignore the ways that the future is already manifesting in their lives. West conveys their state of denial by inserting sequences in which the narrator dictates to the reader the internal emotional realities that the characters refuse to openly acknowledge. It is this tension—between what is relayed to the reader implicitly in how the characters interact, and what is told to the reader explicitly by the omniscient narrator—that drives the story forward.

Beginning with a sequence of disparate images and impressions, Twice Lived opens as two seemingly unrelated pregnant women, Cynthia and Georgia, each in turn receive the devastating news that their fetus is afflicted with a widely recognized (but poorly understood) medical disorder known as “shifting.” Shifters, in this book’s otherwise realistic setting, possess the ability to physically travel (or “shift”) between two nearly identical universes. In both of these worlds, the shifter will have a family who is raising them, and as time progresses they will develop two parallel lives as they advance through their childhoods.

Critical here is that when these shifts occur, and how long each shift lasts, is impossible to predict. A child might physically vanish from one universe without any warning, and then after living in the other reality for many months, spontaneously reappear back in the first universe. More importantly, while most shifters retain the ability to move between universes until at least the age of five, all shifters inevitably “settle” in one of these two realities before adulthood. This is often a traumatizing event in its own right, with the child unexpectedly becoming cut off from one of their two families, while that same family likewise must grieve the sudden but also ambiguous loss of a child who they will never again see.

It’s with this premise established that Twice Lived skips sixteen years forward in the novel’s timeline, introducing Cynthia’s and Georgia’s daughters, Lily and Canna, as they lead contrasting lives and pursue very different futures. Lily lives with her mother and father in a large house, and, as the novel opens, happens to meet a girl on the train to school named Aidha, with whom she starts to fall in love. Meanwhile, Canna lives with Georgia in their attic apartment, and, as her story begins, learns of a local art contest to which her friends think she should submit one of her many drawings.

Yet the lives that both these characters lead are also marred by a growing awareness that, at age sixteen, it is all but certain that at some time in the coming months Lily and Canna will soon settle. While both these characters have so far defied the statistics that most shifters settle by the age of seven, they also know that this trend cannot continue indefinitely. And this awareness that they will soon vanish from one of the two worlds in which they live is something that is increasingly coming to define the unspoken interactions playing out amongst their friends and family.

This scenario is further complicated by one additional fact: that Lily and Canna are, at least in a physical sense, established by West to be the same person: that is, they are each the identity to which the other shifts. Due to the stresses involved in a life spent randomly shifting between worlds, both Lily and Canna have learned to carefully divide the expectations hoisted upon them by others into two distinct identities, both of which have not only their own family and friend groups, but also personal interests and hopes for their respective futures. When one character vanishes from the reality they call their home, the identity of their counterpart reappears in the other universe. Yet now that they are nearing the point in their lives at which they will likely settle, they are both coming to contemplate the simple realization that only one of the two lives they have so far lived will continue on into the future.

This is all brought to the forefront of the narrative by what becomes this novel’s inciting incident. While attending a routine doctor’s appointment with her primary care physician, Dr. Rokundo, Canna learns that a specialist in so-called late-stage shifters, Dr. Gudka, wishes to personally meet with her. In defiance of the prevailing wisdom of her field, Gudka has developed a controversial theory suggesting that prolonged shifting of the kind that Canna experiences is not nearly as harmless as others in her profession claim. According to Gudka, unless Canna forcibly wills herself to settle (rather than waiting for this to happen to her naturally), she will likely experience a severe breakdown in her mental health resulting in a potentially traumatizing episode of disassociation and depersonalization.

Due to this warning (a warning which, in a bit of foreshadowing, Canna’s own doctor implies he finds intensely unprofessional), Canna and Lily begin seeking to find a way to mentally will themselves to stop shifting between worlds. This leads both characters to come into direct conflict with each other for the first time in their lives, with Canna desperate to ensure that she settles in her reality with her mother Georgia, and Lily likewise working to exert her own identity in a way that ensures she ends up in her own home universe with Cynthia instead.

There’s a very gentle quality to how West approaches this conflict, with major events in the plot unfolding over the course of hundreds of pages as the book slowly alternates between not only Lily’s and Canna’s lives, but also the lives of their two mothers. While both Lily and Canna struggle to find a way to will themselves to stop shifting, the book’s broader narrative takes as its primary focus the subtle but also profound ways in which the division they have constructed between their identities is mirrored in the division that Cynthia and Georgia maintain between their own lives and any mention of those which Lily and Canna lead in the other reality.

In one scene, Lily’s mother, Cynthia, considers that, while she has heard via a support group she attends that many parents of shifters write letters to their counterparts in the other universe (letters which they then give to their children to carry around until they next shift), she herself has never felt comfortable reaching out to Georgia in this way. While Cynthia knows in an intellectual sense that Lily has another mother in the other reality, her awareness of Lily’s life on the other side of the shift is so incomplete that she has effectively spent the last sixteen years pretending that Georgia doesn’t exist. A similar sentiment is exhibited by Georgia herself, who at one point reveals via a conversation with Gudka that, when Canna vanishes, a part of her believes that her daughter simply ceases to exist entirely—that the life Canna leads in the other universe doesn’t exist at all. Despite the love which both of these characters feel for their daughters, they are repeatedly shown to maintain a personal distinction between the two halves of their daughter’s life—which ensures they only ever know one half of who that daughter is.

The consequences of this distinction grow more severe as the novel progresses. While both Lily and Canna become convinced (due to Gudka’s warning) that they must deliberately work to further distance from one another their respective conceptualizations of who they are, their shifts between worlds begin paradoxically to grow not only more frequent, but also more psychologically taxing. This happens in tandem with Cynthia’s and Georgia’s contrasting realizations of the true extent to which they have never seriously considered the other halves of their daughter’s life. In one scene, Georgia comes to reflect (with what is to her credit self-evident horror) that she doesn’t even know the name which Canna goes by in the other universe—that, as she herself puts it, she has worked so hard to ignore the reality of Canna’s shifting that she doesn’t even know her own daughter’s name. Likewise, in a scene very late in the novel, Cynthia responds to the unexpected emergence of Canna’s identity on Lily’s side of the shift by pleading with Canna to give her back her daughter—an act which makes clear the brutal division between Canna’s and Lily’s worlds that Cynthia herself has maintained.

These themes surrounding the binary view of Lily’s and Canna’s identities that are exhibited by all of Twice Lived’s characters, and the subtle but profound harm which this mindset has enacted on their lives, is then further reflected via an additional layer of the novel’s story. As Lily and Canna struggle to determine which of the two of them will ultimately settle, there is a similar dichotomy that emerges on the level of the novel’s narrative structure itself.

Much as how Lily and Canna are both depicted as fully realized characters who exist at the center of their respective stories, West likewise writes the entire book in a way which allows this narrative to balance itself between two equally valid story threads. In one, Lily strives to prove not only to Canna but also to herself that the life she is leading in her world is more valid and meaningful than Canna’s life with Georgia. In the other, Canna seeks to do the opposite, with both halves of this book fully investing the reader in the minutiae of each character’s day-to-day experiences. This occurs in a way that ensures one life or identity can never take precedence over the other. On Lily’s side of the shift, the story follows her growing relationship with Aidha, as well as her nervous decision to introduce her new girlfriend to her parents. Meanwhile, Canna’s life with Georgia comes to revolve around her growing awareness of the stress that her own mother has endured on her behalf, and the lengths to which Georgia has gone to ensure that she can remain present in her daughter’s life for whatever time they have left before she settles.

The fact that both of these stories represent fully realized narratives only further highlights for the reader the central theme that one cannot end without seemingly annihilating the other. If Lily is the one to settle, then this will mean that Georgia will be left to grieve Canna’s absence alone, living in the attic apartment decorated with Canna’s many drawings. Meanwhile, if Canna settles, this will mean not only that Cynthia and her husband, Jackson, will be left to grieve the loss of their daughter, but also that Lily’s identity itself will be erased.

This conflict only begins to resolve very late in the novel, and it does so in an unexpected way that upends the strict binary that has so far permeated this story. In a sequence that shifts the narrative out of the sedate pace at which it has previously advanced, Lily and Canna both come to be confronted with an ethical dilemma that requires they quickly work to do the one thing they have so far avoided, and directly acknowledge each other’s existence. This is an endeavor which not only requires that both Lily and Canna coordinate their actions in their respective universes, but also that they finally confront the grief which they know their own desire to settle will enact upon the other’s family.

In the process, just as the novel’s two protagonists finally begin working in harmony with each other as the book nears its end, the story’s structure itself slips out of the precarious balance it has so far maintained, with both halves of its narrative merging, in a sense, into something more complete. The book does this as its two characters finally reach a resolution of their conflict which, while not exactly happy per se, is at least a conclusion to their stories that they both seem capable of living with.



Eric Hendel is a graduate of the University of Vermont, where he studied Japanese with a focus on Japanese literature and a concentration in second language education. He writes blog posts about fiction at erichendel.blogspot.com.
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