Zlata and Srebra are 12-year-old twins conjoined at the head. It is 1984 and they live in Skopje, which will one day be the capital of Macedonia but is currently a part of Yugoslavia. A Spare Life tells the story of their childhood, from their only friend Roza to their neighbour Bogdan, so poor that he one day must eat his pet rabbit. Treated as freaks and outcasts, even by their own family, the twins just want to be normal girls. But after an incident that almost destroys their bond as sisters, they fly to London, determined to be surgically separated. Will this be their liberation, or only more tightly ensnare them?
A Spare Life begins in 1984 but the story crosses decades into the new millennium as Zlata and Srebra grow together and have to make choices about high school, university, and relationships. Lots of people in their lives, including their parents, presume they are mentally deficient because of their situation but both girls are smart and capable. It’s clear from the outset that if they weren’t conjoined twins they could’ve had their own interests, friends and lives if they weren’t attached to one another by a small bit of skin and a vein.
People naturally don’t get on all the time, no matter how close they are, and for Zlata and Srebra to never be able to have their own personal space from one another it’s clear to see the frustrations both girls have. However, A Spare Life is solely told from Zlata’s point of view and personally I would’ve liked it if there were chapters from Srebra’s point of view to see what she thought of her sister and to see if their ideas of one another aligned. Though naturally the girls go through every experience physically together, it’s clear that they’re attitudes and feelings towards things are different and they have different interests and passions too. A Spare Life covers every problem the conjoined twins could have, from the mundane – how to use the toilet – to the more adult – what to do when one of them wants to have sex.
The collapse of Yugoslavia and the various conflicts different nations had during that time is like background noise to Zlata and Srebra’s childhood and adolescence. As they make plans to go to university, Srebra is the one who is most interesting in what’s happening to their home and the people around them, constantly reading newspapers and watching the news. Naturally Zlata also hears about these things but she rarely pays attention. It is interesting to see how different prejudices play out from a Macedonian point of view and how some of the conflicts I’ve read about during my Read the World Project play out in the background.
I found A Spare Life tough going at times because it’s a truly bleak story and Zlata goes through so much heartbreak that it’s depressing but then there’s so much of it you become desensitised to it all. There’s the hardship of being a conjoined twin and how that impacts every part of their lives but then there’s a lot of death surrounding the two of them. Childhood friends, family, loved ones, so many people in their lives die! Honestly it gets kind of much and sure, some people go through a lot of personal tragedy but reading about it here almost became tedious especially as the ones dying were often the ones who actually treated Zlata and Srebra well and like they were their own people.
Perhaps intentionally I found A Spare Life a book of two halves. The first being their childhood to early adulthood in Macedonia and the second half being when they decide to go to London and try and have the operation that would separate the two of them. I did prefer the first half as there was often the sort of childlike naivety to big situations and while they experience on traumatic event when they’re young, it’s not until they’re adults that so much of the death and depressing things happen to them. 3/5.