Book review: The Less You Know The Sounder You Sleep, by Juliet Butler

The extraordinary lives of conjoined Russian sisters Dasha and Masha Krivoshlyapova are revealed in this moving examination of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable difficulties, writes Rob Ewing

Masha, left, and Dasha Krivoshlyapova in 1994. They were taken from their mother at birth and subjected to medical experiments. Picture: Sipa Press/REX/Shutterstock
Masha, left, and Dasha Krivoshlyapova in 1994. They were taken from their mother at birth and subjected to medical experiments. Picture: Sipa Press/REX/Shutterstock
Masha, left, and Dasha Krivoshlyapova in 1994. They were taken from their mother at birth and subjected to medical experiments. Picture: Sipa Press/REX/Shutterstock

The Less You Know The Sounder You Sleep tells the life story of Dasha and Masha Krivoshlyapova, Russian conjoined twins who were born in 1950 and who died in 2003. Juliet Butler interviewed them many times while she worked as a translator in Russia, and has previously published a biography of their lives – which, she informs us, was “heavily edited by Masha,” the dominant twin. This novelisation, then, is an attempt to tell Dasha’s story, and what a magnificent achievement it is.

The book begins in 1956, at the Paediatric institute in Moscow, when the twins are six. They are living in a box – a glass box, cot-sized – and are bored. They want to go home for the weekend with a member of staff they’ve become attached too, who they call mummy. “She’s not your mummy,” a cleaner barks at them soon afterwards. “Your mummy probably went mad as soon as she saw you two freaks.”

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The girls, we learn, were taken from their real mother at birth and subjected to barbaric experiments: “We both get all crunched into the corner of the cot to hide when we see it’s Dr Alexeyeva come in, and we start crying, because it means it’s time for our procedures.”

The exact nature of these “procedures” is revealed only later on in the book, and they make for disturbing reading. So far so grim-sounding, but in fact this book is anything but. The Less You Know... is a searingly frank and sympathetic portrayal of two very different women: Dasha, our narrator, who’s smart, sensitive, honest and loving; and her sister Masha who is quite the opposite: vicious, foul-mouthed and psychopathic – and outrageously funny with it. While receiving a lecture Dasha recounts: “(He) starts going on about Equality and Justice and Doing No Wrong. It’s a bit awkward, as we’re standing next to the little kid Masha tried to stuff down the rubbish chute the other day.”

There was a risk that Masha could turn into a figure of hate – especially given her incessant casual cruelties to Dasha – but we stay onside because we sense she’s a survivor, and because her sister obviously loves her. Dasha’s voice as narrator is a wonderful achievement, and there’s much to be moved by here as she recounts her life, not least the moment the twins see themselves in the mirror for the first time: “...we saw this lumbering, ugly thing with bits sticking out everywhere rocking towards us... like nothing we’d ever seen before. It was me and Masha. It was how everyone sees us. I won’t even think about it now, it makes me sick.” Of the girls’ first time outside, she recalls: “My head’s spinning like it does when we do loads of somersaults. There grass is mushy, not hard like the floor, and there are no walls anywhere to keep us upright... It’s too big, there’s too much space, there’s nothing keeping us in!”

The girls grow up and move to a school for invalids in Novocherkassk, where they make friends, including Slava, who Dasha falls in love with. Then after a grading which condemns the girls to invalidity and lifelong state support they move back to Moscow, where the new administrator, on warning them against self-harm, tells them icily: “Our statistics for suicide are the best in Moscow. So if you intend to die, we shall ensure it’s of natural causes.”

The girls spend their lives struggling against the oppression of the system and the ignorance of “healthies”: “Ugh... you should’ve been drowned at birth,” is a fairly typical reaction from people who encounter them.Set against this, though, are those who treat them with love and humanity, most memorably Aunty Nadya, who battles Kafkaesque soviet bureaucracy to get two passports rather than one, and who is there (unforgettably) for them in the final hours of their life.

This novel, while always being a accessible read, offers profound insights into the effects of early deprivation on two very different people, and into the daydreams we nurture in order to survive; it tells us about love in impossible circumstances, and about the loneliness of never actually being alone. And the importance of 
having something to hope for. “Olessya always used to say that happiness lies in three things,” Dasha tells us. “Having someone to love, something to do and something to hope for. At least I’ve got the first and last.” For the second: do yourself a favour and read this wonderful book.

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The Less You Know The Sounder You Sleep is published by Fourth Estate, £12.99

Rob Ewing is an Edinburgh-based GP. His debut novel The Last of Us is published by Borough Press.