Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
|Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
|Category: General Fiction
|Reviewer: Robin Leggett
|Summary: A delicious and deadly twenty-first-century ghost story about love, loss and identity. This is a dark and bittersweet tale that raises questions but is told in a deceptively light and thoroughly enthralling way.
|Date: October 2009
|Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd
When Elspeth Noblin dies of leukaemia, she leaves behind a strange bequest that will have dramatic and tragic consequences. She leaves her London flat and all the trappings of her life to the 'mirror' twins of her own twin sister who currently live outside Chicago. This is news to the twins who didn't even know that they had an aunt. The only condition of her legacy is that the twins, Julia and Valentina, have to live in the flat, which is adjacent to Highgate Cemetery, for a year before they can sell it. It is clear from the outset that Elspeth has secrets about her relationship with her twin sister Edie, which she is keen to keep hidden from the twins, but when it turns out that Elspeth hasn't quite left the apartment after her death, things get a whole lot messier for everyone.
Second novels can be tricky things at the best of times, but if your first book reaches the popular and critical acclaim of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, a book that has sold nearly five million copies worldwide, was voted number 11 in a Daily Telegraph readers' poll of the 'Top 50 Books of All Time' and now a major Hollywood movie, to say that expectations are high is an understatement. Could any book live up to these expectations? Well, with Her Fearful Symmetry, the perhaps surprising answer is an unqualified 'yes'.
Niffenegger again covers themes such as loss and identity together with love that in her world always seems to have a dark twist. But it is her lucid imagery that again makes the exceptional (in this case, ghosts) seem wholly acceptable and normal that shows that this is a writer of great originality. You know you are back in Niffenegger territory when the first chapter is entitled The End.
The twins have a level of mutual dependency, but are very different characters and much of the story revolves around their fight to establish their own independent identities. Julia is the confident one, but lacks any drive while Valentina, also known as 'the Mouse', is shy and unconfident. Together they move to London and find themselves in Elspeth's flat, along with her strange neighbours.
Downstairs is Robert, Elspeth's former lover, who works as a guide in neighbouring Highgate Cemetery while trying to write his seemingly never-ending thesis on the history of the graveyard. He, like Valentina, is shy and the two are eventually drawn to each other. Upstairs is the OCD-suffering Martin, a crossword compiler whose Dutch wife has left him and whose mental illness has got so bad that he cannot leave his own flat in order to chase after her. There is a stunningly beautiful moment when he arranges with his estranged wife a birthday meal, involving her going to a restaurant with her mobile phone so that they can 'eat together'. The ever-curious Julia is somehow drawn to him.
But it is in the twins' flat that things get really mysterious. The first intruder they are aware of is the wonderfully named Little Kitten of Death, but there is also a strange presence in the form of Elspeth herself. But can Elspeth work out how to communicate with the twins? And what will she have to say about Valentina's friendship with her former lover, Robert? And all the time there is the fascinating location of Highgate Cemetery itself.
Niffenegger is a qualified Highgate guide and she seamlessly introduces fascinating information about the 'residents' and history of this magical place into the story. Meanwhile, the twins continue to struggle with their own identities and the pressures of being two halves of the same person while exploring the delights of London.
Like The Time Traveler's Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry is a thought-provoking and bittersweet novel that will keep you enthralled from the first page to the last. It draws you in and tugs at your emotions. The story twists and turns and I constantly found myself only second guessing what it was leading to a matter of lines before it happened. I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. All the relationships are somehow 'twisted' and it is this sense of dark in every character that makes them so believable and I found myself continually changing my loyalties to my favourite characters. They're lightly drawn, but you are given enough to make them both rounded and believable. Some might feel that the ending leaves a few too many strands out there, but mostly I was just sorry that the book was over.
Let's hope that we don't have to wait another six years for the next full length novel from this highly original author.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
If you are one of the few book readers who has somehow managed to avoid The Time Traveler's Wife by the same author, I'd urge you to rectify that before even thinking about watching the movie. Another of my favourite books, Ian McEwan's Atonement, also features twins, albeit in a more minor role (and also shares the distinction of the book being better than the movie). We can also recommend The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill and The Angel at No. 33 by Polly Williams.
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2009.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger at Amazon.com.
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