Written by the sisters in alternating chapters, the book is divided into three sections — Grade 10, Grade 11 and Grade 12 — and details their teenage years and discovery of rave and grunge in the mid-90s.
Their upbringing in the suburbs of northeast Calgary, where temperatures can hit minus-20 degrees in winter, was fairly drab. Born in 1980 to childhood sweethearts who split when the sisters were in first grade, the girls lived mostly with their mom, Sonia, a plucky activist and mental health worker who worked long shifts. This meant, as Tegan puts it, that “Sara and I were free to kick the,” well, you know, “out of each other without a referee.”
In 1990, Sonia and the girls move in with Bruce, a handsome, Camaro-driving hockey-playing construction manager who becomes a kind of stepfather and emerges in the book as a caring, endearingly complicated hero.
The Quins are skilled writers with an eye for detail. Here’s Sara describing the scene as Bruce ferries them to school in his pickup truck: “The silver wrappers from the Wendy’s burgers he ate daily were balled up near the pedals on the floor. The dashboard and seats were dusted with grit from the construction sites he managed, and the whole car smelled of onions and his musky cologne.”
Both women deftly capture the messy complexities of being twins. As acrimonious as their relationship could be, there was also an inexorable need. “We fought, mercilessly, for time alone,” Tegan writes, “but I still felt a primal fear of being apart from her.” They discover acid (they very matter-of-factly did a ton of drugs). They hit the mall. They brawl over whose turn it is to use the computer as the dial-up modem sputters to life, one of many amusing ’90s-era details.
And both begin to realize, even if they can’t yet put it into words, that they are attracted to girls. Tegan attempts to date a guy named Spencer. (“Why doesn’t this feel right?” she keeps asking herself.) Meanwhile, Sara writes secret letters to her crushes. (“It was still a shock to feel desire for girls, addictive thoughts that stole hours of my time at school and in bed before I fell asleep.”)
When she finally kisses her friend Naomi, she feels so much inner turmoil that she runs to the bathroom to throw up, terrified of revealing her sexuality in a place, and era, that isn’t particularly queer-friendly.
Music becomes their salvation. Sara discovers Smashing Pumpkins and howls along to the lyrics, imagining that a crowd, replete with her junior high bullies, is watching her. In 10th grade, the sisters unearth a guitar that Bruce has stashed under the stairs. They steal off to teach themselves to play (Tegan studying music videos of Courtney Love and mimicking how she holds her hands). “Slowly, I was able to start holding power chords that didn’t sound half bad,” she writes.
Eventually, Sara starts singing along, and writes their very first song, “Tegan Didn’t Go to School Today.” Their fate is sealed when their mom buys them an electric guitar on their 16th birthday.
In 12th grade, they enter a contest called Garage Warz. The prize is gigs and studio time. “If we don’t win tonight, our mom is going to make us go to college,” Tegan announces to the judges. They win. Their fans know what followed: a million albums sold, a Grammy nomination, their emergence as outspoken advocates for LGBTQ rights.
By the book’s end, the reader is nearly as eager to leave high school as they are. This is not a knock. They write so viscerally about the mundaneness and despair and occasional highs, chemical and otherwise, of being a teen that it revived, for me, some long-buried memories I had hoped to leave behind forever.
“High School” has the immediacy and intimacy of a diary, but it also suffers from the stream-of-consciousness verbosity of the form: a litany of drugs, crushes on girls, raucous parties at the pot-smoke-clouded house of an older dude named Rick.
And while the book adeptly captures the searing pain of being a teenager, the sisters don’t offer any insight as adults. Why did they do so many drugs, for instance? “Teenage boredom” and “Calgary winters” seem like reasonable explanations, but it would have been enlightening to hear it from them.
The most powerful moment in “High School” comes as they confront their sexuality. Sara writes movingly of realizing that she is gay. In a flood of tears after her first girlfriend leaves her, she stands at her bedroom window and looks at the moon. I’m gay, she thinks for the first time. “From that night forward, I carried the words in my mouth,” she writes, “tempted to tell everyone and no one.”
“High School” reminds us that even one compassionate adult can have an outsize effect on a teen struggling with their sexuality. When a boy in Sara’s sex education class asserts that only gay people get AIDS, she flees the class, sobbing, and blindly runs to her sympathetic drama teacher, Mr. Russel, who immediately takes charge. Afterward, when she thanks him, she writes, “I found that I couldn’t quite meet his eyes. I wanted to tell him that I knew he was gay, and that I probably was, too. But I couldn’t.”
His instinctive rush to protect her is one of the book’s most dramatic scenes. It’s been nearly a quarter-century since then. Maybe Mr. Russel doesn’t even remember his act of kindness that day. But Sara does.
Jancee Dunn’s most recent book is “How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids.”
By Sara Quin and Tegan Quin
MCD. 384 pp. $27