Chang and Eng

Written by Darin Strauss
Review by Michael I. Shoop

In this enthralling first novel, Darin Strauss has combined meticulous historical research with imaginative storytelling to create a richly detailed, multi-layered account of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins.

Born in 1811 on the Mekong River in the Kingdom of Siam, Chang and Eng were considered a bizarre curiosity from almost the moment they drew breath. Identical twins, joined at the chest by a fleshy band, the boys shared a stomach, but otherwise they were separate. Eng, the story’s narrator, is a reserved, studious individual, a reader of Shakespeare and a proponent of temperance, and all his life longs to be liberated from the physical attachment to his brother. Chang, however, is somewhat coarse, outgoing, and a hard drinker, who could never view himself as an entity apart from Eng.

At the age of seven, Chang and Eng are summoned to the opulent court of King Rama of Siam, who looks them over, condemns them to death, then changes his mind, educates them, and exploits them as national freaks. In 1825, a fortune-seeking American promoter lures them onto a ship bound for the United States, where he displays them to curious audiences as a circus act. The brothers become sensational celebrities, tour the United States and Europe, perform their acrobatic act for the general masses, meet royalty, and experience the world. As the brothers become men and they achieve financial stability, they find a measure of freedom from the grueling tour circuit. While traveling through North Carolina in 1842, Chang and Eng meet the Yates sisters, Adelaide and Sarah, which leads to the odd courtship and eventual marriage of the brothers to the two sisters. The brothers adopt the surname Bunker, father 21 children between them, become successful plantation owners, and survive the turbulence of the American Civil War.

Using sensitive and moving language and vivid description, Strauss creates sharply drawn, colorful characters: from the twins’ sad, poverty-stricken parents to the opportunistic Captain Coffin to the illustrious P. T. Barnum to a host of minor figures, both real and imagined. His greatest triumph, though, is in his depiction of the brothers themselves: he brings their lives from somewhat shrouded circumstances, endows them with individual personalities, characteristics, and emotions, and makes them believable human beings. The reader is presented with a truly remarkable portrait of Chang and Eng, two unusual men whose greatest desire was to lead normal lives. This is a fascinating, highly readable, and enlightening historical novel about two figures who deserve to be remembered as more than the “original Siamese twins.”