Trigger warning: eating disorders, abuse
Lily and Rose are identical twins. Until they’re not. Rose has always been the quieter twin, at home with their oneness, determined they be joined at the hip. They existed, Rose reflects, ‘on our own frequency, a station between channels that sounded like nothing more than raw static to others.’
Up to their early teenage years, the only thing that sets the two apart from each other is a small mole on Lily’s torso. But when they turn fourteen, Rose, desperate to ingratiate herself with the popular clique and win the affection of its ring leader, Jemima, begins to starve herself. And the less Rose consumes, the more Lily fills in the gaps.
‘She fed herself because I wouldn’t. We were an hourglass. Emptying the contents of one side only filled the other.’
There is an almost surreal quality to the next part of Rose’s life: a hazy rawness that emulates her slipping in and out of consciousness as her body hangs on by a thread – in Rose’s case, a tic-tac on the hour, and nothing else. Flitting between the past and the present, chronicling Rose’s teenagerhood with Lily and subsequent anorexia, we witness the collapse of their once-inseparable bond in the 2000s coupled with present-day Rose in an eating disorder facility.
I thought I could predict where this story was taking me, but I was impressed by the incredibly nuanced and delicate way the narrative is told. Clarke deftly explores the complex psychology behind Rose’s eating disorder, and the extreme psychological and physical harm this illness inflicts on its victims. There is no glamorisation of anorexia here – it is explored in graphic and unflinching detail. At one point, Rose’s teeth deteriorate – she becomes too worried about calories in toothpaste. Her lips are permanently chapped, lest she ingest some of the nutritional content of chapstick. Rose is unwaveringly honest – she knows her emaciated body is not conventionally ‘attractive’ – but that isn’t the point.
‘I wanted to see what wasn’t there anymore. I wanted to see how much of me had been erased. I wanted to see how little of me remained.’
The story is told with startling insight and skill, the narrative flitting between past and present, interspersed with vignettes of information that Rose has burned into her brain. She consumes knowledge in the equal and opposite way in which she is unable to consume food.
‘In the 1930s, a dieting trend emerged in the media. Slimming soaps, which professed to wash away extra weight by simply working up a lather in the shower. See all those women, in the midst of the depression, still desperately scouring their skin, scrubbing themselves skinny.’
Even more surprisingly, this is, in its own complex way, a queer love story, and a startling exploration of denying your sexuality and wreaking havoc on your body. ‘We think we can exorcise desire by famine,’ Rose reflects. Reconciling this part of her identity is essential for any chance at recovery.
Not everything works perfectly – the ornate passages Rose reads about her sister Lily’s trauma felt a little jarring in the context of the book, and some of the metaphors were a little overstretched – but this is overall an impressive, intense and gripping portrait of young womanhood, obsession, illness, desire, and hope.
With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. Thin Girls will be published on 30th June 2020.