Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Untwine: a novel by Edwidge Danticat

Untwine is a young adult novel about a girl who loses her twin sister in an devastating car accident and her struggle to regain her health and her life.

Sixteen-year-old identical twins, Giselle and Isabelle Boyer live in Miami, Florida with their father, David who is a lawyer and their mother, Sylvie who does the make-up for television. Their parents are planning to separate.The Boyer family is on their way to a school concert in which Isabelle will be playing flute. As strains of Igor Stravinsky's Firebird play on the CD player in their father's SUV, suddenly they are suddenly rammed from behind by a red minivan. Her father attempts to avoid the van but a retaining wall on the passenger side of the car prevents him from doing so. Isabelle, who had just taken off her seatbelt, has her head smashed against the window. As her mother screams, Gizelle and Isabelle hold hands, "...the tightest we have ever held hands in our entire lives."

Gizelle is semi-awake in the ambulance and when she is pulled out of the ambulance at the hospital. She overhears a list of serious injuries and then realizes that they are not talking about her but also about Isabelle. Eventually Gizelle briefly wakens in a small white room with a large glass window and determines that she is in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. The first person to arrive is her Aunt Leslie, who is her mother's sister and also Gizelle and Isabelle's godmother. She lives in Orlando where she is a pediatrician.

Standing behind Aunt Leslie is a policewoman who wants to question Gizelle. However, Aunt Leslie tells the policewoman that Gizelle has a very bad concussion and is drifting in and out of consciousness. Aunt Leslie is crying and the policewoman tells her that they believe what happened might not be an accident. Gizelle hears this and wonders what this means.

Although Gizelle cannot respond to those around her, she can clearly remember things that have happened in the past. She thinks about her and Isabella, how her twin is 90 seconds older and still weighs slightly more than her. She also thinks about her best friend Tina Marshall and her classmate, Jean Michel Brun who is her dream crush. Whenever Gizelle regains consciousness she is in a lot of pain. She finds herself in another room, moved from the PICU because she has no serious injuries.

Gizelle continues to awaken periodically and one time is stunned to hear the male nurse call her Isabelle. Gizelle is unable to move her arms or speak. "My whole body can't move. I can't speak, but I can see Aunt Leslie and the glass bricks on the walls."  Even Aunt Leslie believes she is Isabelle. Terribly upset, Aunt Leslie tries to fill Gizelle in on what has happened. Although Gizelle is having difficulty comprehending what her aunt is telling her, she is able to piece together that her parents are in the adult wing of the same hospital and that Isabelle has died from her terrible injuries.

Gizelle's Uncle Patrick arrives at the hospital and shows her photos of her parents on his cell phone so that she can see how they are doing. He also takes pictures of her and shows them to Gizelle. She cannot respond to him but she can see the photos although the cell phone screen bothers her. Gizelle is also visited by a doctor who is leading a group of residents on rounds. She refers to him as the "head duck" and his "ducklings". They continue to believe that she is Isabelle.

Eventually, Gizelle's parents do visit her. She is propped up in the bed, but still cannot really respond, although she can see and hear everything that is going on. Her father has more serious injuries than her mother and is in a wheelchair. It is her mother though who realizes that Gizelle has been mistakenly identified as Isabelle. Shouting to Gizelle's father, Aunt Leslie and Uncle Patrick she insists based on the scar on Gizelle's head and a mole behind her ear.

Another visit by the head neurologist with his students sees him discussing the fact that Gizelle is a twin and that she is young and should be able to shake off this head injury. He encourages her to wake up. Gizelle knows that she needs to wake up but she struggles because waking up means living life without her best friend and twin, Isabelle. It means leaving Isabelle behind.


Untwine is a beautifully crafted novel by award-winning writer, Edwidge Danticat. It explores the themes of identity and grief as a young girl copes with a devastating loss.

The story is told by sixteen-year-old Gizelle Boyer who loses her best friend and twin sister Isabelle in a terrible car accident. Gizelle is suffering from a serious concussion and has difficulty waking up. Partly she doesn't want to awaken. "I want to wake up, but I can't. Because waking up might mean leaving Isabelle behind forever." While she's not fully conscious, Gizelle is able to remember life with Isabelle, something she will no longer have. She will also have to face the reality of her parents separating.Gizelle has  vivid and rich imaginings of her sister Isabelle culminating in her imagining speaking with her sister and saying goodbye. "Isabelle is now standing at my bedside with both her hands, her perfect, unhurt hands, resting on the railing of my hospital bed. She's wearing her orchestra uniform, the white blouse, black pencil skirt, and black bow tie, the same one she was wearing in the car...You've really astonished me here," she says, looking down at me in the bed. 'You've been great. Super great. For the rest of your life you keep stunning me. Just keep stunning me.' " Gizelle tells Isabelle she won't live and that she loves her.

However, the head neurologist, Dr. Aidoo believes that Gizelle can recover and he encourages her to fight to wake up. When Gizelle loses her hearing she makes the decision to try to awaken, starting with trying to move her toes. "I'm tired of my silence. I'm tired of having all these thoughts racing through my head. Even if I can't hear them, I to be able to say something." As she struggles to give her family a sign that she is trying to wake up she thinks, "It's a lot harder to  move forward than to fall back. I have to remind myself that no matter how hard it seems, I just can't keep falling back."

Eventually Gizelle wakes up and begins her recovery from her severe concussion.Gizelle's biggest struggle is dealing with being a survivor. At her sister's funeral, Gizelle is unnerved seeing her sister - her identical twin in a coffin. "But even with all of the makeup, she still looks like me. It's like looking at me."  Gizelle knows what she looks like dead because she has her sister to show her. "I know exactly what I look like dead. I look like Isabelle."  Isabelle's friend states what everyone is thinking - "You look just like her." Although others are upset, Gizelle recognizes the truth of the comment. "A few people gasp, but she is telling the truth. An uncomfortable truth, but the truth nonetheless. No one will ever forget Isabelle as long as I'm walking around with her body and her face. My sister is dead and I am her ghost."

Gizelle must now face life without Isabelle. She always thought of her future connected to that of Isabelle's, that they would share their lives important moments. Gizelle feels that her identity as a twin has changed with Isabelle's death. "But what are you called when your twin dies? I want some name other than twinless twin. I want something simple, lyrical sophisticated sounding. Even though I know it would never fully comfort me. I want something beautiful to now call myself." 

Gizelle's friends, Jean Michel and Tina are trying to learn more about the mysterious Gloria Carlton who caused the accident. When they visit Gizelle to tell her about what they have learned, Gizelle notices that Jean Michel has Frida Kahlo's The Two Fridas as a screensaver. Gizelle is stunned because the painting represents exactly how she feels. "How does he know, I wonder, that this is exactly how I've been feeling? Split in half sometimes, and at other times walking, living, breathing for two. Two hearts are beating in my one chest, but it feels like no heart at all." 

The portrait painted in 1939 by the Mexican artist, is a self portrait, showing two Fridas. One is dressed in the traditional Tehuana costume (blue dress and green skirt) with a whole, beating heart and holding a locket. The other Frida is dressed in a white, lacy Victorian dress and has a bleeding, broken heart, the vein running down into her lap, dripping blood. The two Fridas are holding hands, their hearts connected. The painting is a metaphor of Gizelle in several ways. First it represents Gizelle, the whole Gizelle before the accident and the Gizelle who lost her sister. When Tina presents her with "a framed picture, half the size of a postcard. In the red plastic frame is a shrunken copy of Frida Kahlo's The Two Fridas." at first Gizelle wonders which one she is but then she understands what her friend Tina and Jean Michel are attempting to tell her. "It takes me a while to figure it out, but eventually I do. I think he's trying to tell me what everyone's been telling me in one way or another since Isabelle died, that I won't be the bloodless Frida forever, the one day, my heart will be full of life again." 

The Two Fridas might also represent both twins; Isabelle (in the white dress) broken and bleeding and Gizelle in the Tehuana costume, whole and healthy. Isabelle and Gizelle were holding hands when the accident happened. "We were holding hands the tightest we have ever held hands in our entire lives. We were holding hands just as we had been holding hands on the day we were born...We were born holding hands." When the car crashes into Isabelle's car door, Gizelle remembers "My sister was still holding my hand, but now our hands were wet and sticky, and hot."  

The cover of the novel expresses the theme of twins and the death of one twin through the use of two hearts with veins spreading out from them. In keeping with the theme, one heart has as set of veins which become branches filled with blossoms representing the living Gizelle, the other heart has a set of veins which become dead branches representing Isabelle.

Danticat does an excellent job of developing her main character, Gizelle: the reader feels tremendous empathy for Gizelle as she struggles to accept the loss of her twin sister. If there's a weakness in this novel, it is the lack of development of secondary characters, although Gizelle's Aunt Leslie is particularly well done. It is Aunt Leslie who helps move Gizelle forward in the process of grieving.

Untwine is further unique in the bits of Haitian culture woven through the story, making this novel even more engaging read. Despite Gizelle's parents troubled marriage, we never feel like she is left alone to cope as her extended Haitian family is very supportive and she finds comfort in some of her family's customs. Untwine is truly wonderful novel.

Book Details:

Untwine: a novel by Edwidge Danticat
New York: Scholastic Press   2015
303 pp.

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