January 2009

Erin McKnight


Passenger by Billy Cowie

“Milan and Roma are twins. They’ve lived together for years, but only just met...”

The timing is right for Passenger. Media saturation of medical cases such as the infant from whose brain a foot was removed, or the man who for several decades supported a mass of tissue, hair, stomach acid and teeth with his own blood supply, has heralded the widely accepted notion that depicting the absorption of a fetus in utero no longer rests solely in the bizarre territory of the science fiction genre.

The consumption of one’s own twin, it appears, has gone mainstream.

Indeed, what once occurred in a shielded nine-month time span is now a major constituent in leading-edge scientific discoveries, and is at the forefront of a dark-natured societal hankering for knowledge. We know we shouldn’t explore such disturbing findings, in text or on-screen; we tell ourselves we won’t, but we relent over and again because the uncommon, the ghoulish, is a quenching element in a gratification-thirsty society. As such, although interest regarding the subject of the parasitic twin currently runs high, Passenger author Billie Cowie isn’t granted a free reader-interest and appreciation pass. It is clear, however, that the author doesn’t expect any such treatment, for his novel manages to shock the unflappable modern reader with a love story sweet in delivery and sentiment.

Milan Kotzia is a London violinist in a new relationship. The woman who he is bound to fall in love with, however, is not Karen, a fellow orchestra member, for she is not the only woman sharing his bed. One morning he hears it: “Tap tap tap--tap... a clicking sound. It goes on and on. It is the rhythm of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, bar after bar, with the counterpoints and accompaniments filled in.” The tapping incidences multiply, as Milan continues to hear, to feel, the unsettling sound... on the bus, and in rehearsal, along with “a bit of discomfort at the bottom of his back.” This sense of unease, he soon discovers, spreads beyond his body and casts a general, if somewhat imperceptible, sense of malaise. It is only when a diagnosis of fetus in fetu is pronounced, however, that Milan embarks on establishing a relationship in which the intimacy achieved provides both the comfort and provocation one would unwittingly long for from an undiscovered sibling.

The blurriness that has discolored forty-two years of naught-performed X-rays soon casts its pall over Milan’s life, until he comes to terms with his deformity and names the mass -- his twin sister -- Roma. This entity wrapped around Milan’s internal structure in rather a “beautiful fashion” proves itself, herself, as the greatest instrument he will ever play. For, with the help of a speech therapist, Milan embarks on a mission in communication, an operation of world navigation for a twin whose senses have only ever experienced perception through his. Yet, with a behavioral psychologist’s simple suggestion, "Maybe your Roma has something to say," brother and sister become composer, conductor, and performers of their own movement.

The true joy in Passenger, however, comes not from Milan’s progress in interacting with his sister, but from the character development that this communication burgeons in Roma. As evidenced from the tapping conversations that develop from a rudimentary Morse code, and which reach heights of discourse eventually occurring independently of Milan’s involvement, Roma is a riot.

Milan taps out:
< Cigarette coming >
< Shit cigarette or excellent cigarette? >
< Shit cigarette > Milan answers truthfully.

An ability to calculate the nicotine content within a cigarette’s first puffs, her appreciation for a good stiff drink, and her affection for Murri, the speech expert who becomes for Milan a supportive lover and for Roma a partner in learning, ensures that this unseen character steals every scene. Every single scene. Because even though her existence may go unnoticed, its effects aren’t. The establishment of Roma’s presence through a style simple enough to surmount medical inquiry and plausibility, and to provide brother and sister the necessary space in which to form an emotional connection, is a testament to Cowie’s skill.

The book, however -- in mirroring such authentic patterns of interaction between siblings -- has its minor flaws; characters serving as vehicles may seem a little too obviously inserted, and a lacking follow-up attention paid to a media frenzy that seems to simply dissipate serve as two examples. Yet, when Roma says: < Roma not good. Roma not good > as she struggles to wake from the operation that grants her temporary external vision, it is the reader who is aware of riding along, of being transported by the music of siblings whose melody is in the noisy sound of their unified bodies sleeping, digesting, moving, breathing... being. After all, music soothes the most savage of beasts.

Passenger by Billy Cowie
Old Street Publishing
ISBN: 1905847440
192 Pages