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The Phantom Twin by Lisa Brown
Ever wanted to run away to the circus? Maybe, think again. Lisa Brown’s graphic novel The Phantom Twin lays bare the hardship endured, as well as belonging provided, by the circus — in this case, the sideshow carnival of the 1920s for the unwanted and the freakish. Isabel and Jane are conjoined twins sold to the dastardly Mr Carlisle — the owner of the sideshow. Sharing an arm and leg isn’t much fun, especially when Isabel's sister, Jane, is the boss. When Isabel would rather stay in, drawing, Jane wants to go out and enjoy herself. Dancing and acting on stage, with Mr Carlisle ‘taking care’ of their money, isn’t what either girl wants, but in a world with no parents, their only family being their fellow obscurities, and no home, a way out doesn’t look too promising — until Jane meets an ambitious surgeon. Jane sees a chance for them both to have a ‘normal’ life, but the surgery to part the girls goes wrong and Isabel is left with a clumsy prosthetic arm and leg and no sister. Well, a sort of sister, a phantom twin. With nowhere to go, Isabel returns to the carnival and into the care of Nora, the tattooed lady, who encourages her to make a new life for herself. But without Jane, what can she be? Carlisle grudgingly lets her stay and gives her a new role — the mechanical doll. Haunted by her sister, who badgers her to leave the carnival, Isabel is constantly aware of this phantom at her side. Will Jane ever let her go and does she really want her to go? Fortunately, she has a friend in Nora, and she shows her the possibility of a way out of her dilemmas, initially introducing her to someone that can make her better prosthetics and who, later, will open a window to her talents. With the carnival falling on hard times, there’s a journalist sniffing around for a scandal, and Isabel finds herself at the centre of drama she is unfairly blamed for and life seems to go from bad to worse. Who will save her now? Lisa Brown’s comic-style drawings are flat and colourful, with a blue palette that underscores the depression times and the hardships that befall Isabel. There are also pockets of radiant reds and greens, reflecting the excitement and entertainment aspects of the sideshow and the fabulousness of its players. Lisa Brown uses colour to highlight emotional drama too, with intense dark scenes and endearing moments in bright and lively tones. The illustrations also subtly portray the fringes of society in depression-era America giving the reader an insight into this difficult but fascinating period. At the conclusion of the book, in the author's notes, Brown shares some of her research into the carnival and the real people who found themselves on the stage. Aimed at teens, The Phantom Twin would be suitable for most ages with its quirky and thoughtful exploration of difference, friendship, coming-of-age and falling in love, identity and realising your true talents. A ghost story with a happy ending.