The Less You Know The Sounder You Sleep

by Juliet Butler, Fourth Estate, £12.99

The Russian adage that provides the title to this book is an ironic reference to its contents: the story of Maria and Daria Krivoshlyapova (known as Dasha and Masha), conjoined twins who were born in Russia in 1950 and died in 2003. The author befriended them during the last 15 years of their life but she has chosen to write their biography in novel form. This is a mistake – it makes the narrative too raw, confusing and intrusive.

The girls were marked out for heartbreak from the beginning. Taken from their mother after birth, they spent their first six years in the Institute of Experimental Medicine in Moscow. Deprived of any semblance of normal life, they were constantly studied and experimented on – experiments that would now be considered a form of medical torture and abuse.

In 1956, they were removed to an Orthopaedics Institute, taught to walk and given an elementary education. In 1964, they were transferred to a special needs boarding school and then to a Home for Veterans of War and Labour for 20 years. By the time of their death they were the oldest living conjoined twins in the world.

The book tells us two things. The first is the sheer heartlessness and brutality of the Soviet division of people into “Defectives” and “Healthies”, with the first group hidden away in a society that refused to acknowledge their existence.

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