Karen Heuler, Author . Livingston Press $25 (253p) ISBN 978-1-931982-31-3 ISBN 1-931982-32-5

This debut novel by O. Henry Prize–winning short story writer Heuler (The Other Door ) centers on Abby and Meg, identical twins with a significant difference: Meg is born with analgia, a rare congenital condition that renders her incapable of feeling physical pain. Though this presents intriguing possibilities, Heuler's understated tone and philosophical preoccupation with the meaning of pain and suffering comes at the expense of narrative tension. Despite the life-threatening nature of Meg's strange condition—with no awareness of pain, she often injures herself severely—Meg develops a certain air of superiority over her sister and peers as she matures, generating unhealthy sibling resentments. When the twins' mother is diagnosed with cancer, their father submits Meg as a human guinea pig to a research institute in exchange for their living expenses and his wife's medical treatment. Here, the disjointed narrative bogs down with medical jargon and descriptions of the research facility and its menagerie of freaky patients. When Meg grows up, she returns to the institute as an animal research assistant while she seeks out and submits to medical research herself. "It was hard to imagine pain; pain itself was evanescent, even to those who experienced it," she muses. "They were impressed by its devastation, its immediacy, its addictive self-consciousness." Heuler reaches for psychosocial insight, but the flat omniscient voice leaches the novel of emotional impact and pull. Though the denouement offers dramatic possibility, the payoff is too hard-earned. (May)

Reviewed on: 04/12/2004
Release date: 05/01/2004
Genre: Fiction
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