Phantom Twin by Lisa Brown, 208 pp, RL 5

The Phantom Twin by Lisa Brown
Review Copy from FirstSecond

Lisa Brown's graphic novel will linger in your memory like a phantom limb. Sorry - I know that is the obvious opener, but it's also true. I read the book a few days ago and find myself thinking about it and returning to it. Brown's flat illustration style and murky, sometimes grim palette pair perfectly with the setting and tone of the story which, despite the trials and sadness that plague Jane, the main character, has moments of humor and a bright and joyful epilogue.

Isabel and Jane are conjoined sisters, sold at the age of three to the manager of a traveling carnival sideshow where they perform as the Amazing Siamese Twins. Now sixteen, Iss is the outgoing, dominant twin, and Jane, who feels safe in her adopted family of performers, is less ambitious. When Iss meets a doctor (hoping to make a name for himself) who wants to separate the twins, she will not let Jane say no, despite her misgivings. But the operation is not successful and Iss dies, leaving Jane alone in the world, missing an arm and a leg, but gaining the bossy, sometimes malevolent ghost of her sister. 

Jane is left on her own to learn who to trust and how to think of her worth as more than being a sideshow oddity. The doctor sets her up with prosthetics and sends her out into the world without much else. Jane's sideshow family takes her in, and through her friend, Nora the tattooed snake charmer, she meets Tommy, a freckle-faced tattoo artist. Using his skills as an artist, Tommy brings life to Jane's prosthetics and works to gain her friendship. Unfortunately, Jane is being wooed by an unscrupulous newspaper reporter hoping to reveal the secrets of the sideshow. A climactic ending finds the people who care most about her, including Iss, coming to Jane's aid when she needs it most. While there are many memorable moments in The Phantom Twin, it is Jane's journey of living without her sister and finding a path out of life in the sideshow - and Brown's illustrations - that make this graphic novel unforgettable.

Brown includes an author's note about the history of freak shows and the way that, in times past, they kept people from being institutionalized but also frequently exploited them, even abusing them. Sources for further reading and a glossary are included as well.

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