Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Audrey Niffenegger - Her Fearful Symmetry

Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry, Vintage, 2009.

Spoiler warning!

I enjoyed the author's previous novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, so I was looking forward to reading this book. As I expected, it contains the same combination of present day realism, detailed characterization, and a less convincing supernatural element.

The story takes place in a house adjacent to Highgate Cemetery in London (which sounds like a wonderful place to visit), and tells the story of the occupants of the building's three flats (apartments) following the death of one of them.

From the beginning it is clear that this is a ghost story, with Elspeth Noblin dying and becoming a ghost. The ghost element is not clearly explained, reflecting the inconsistent portrayal of ghosts in popular culture. The ghost seems to be energy rather than matter, but with time she learns to move physical matter and to manifest and become visible to some people. Also, it is not entirely clear why she is confined to her flat (not the place of her death), unless this is related to the psychological reason for her afterlife. The characters encountering Elspeth's ghost, and the readers, cannot infer from her existence that everyone becomes a ghost upon dying, or that all ghosts are confined to their former place of residence.

The main characters are Elspeth, her lover Robert, who lives in the flat below her, her American twin nieces Julia and Valentina, who inherit her flat and move in, and Martin, who lives upstairs. Their stories become intertwined, as the twins, rather predictably, form complicated relationships with Robert and Martin. There are also hints of secret between Elspeth and her twin sister Edie, which explains why Elspeth chose Edie's daughters as her heirs.

Robert is writing a history of the cemetery, and gives guided tours of it. Valentina starts a relationship with him, which is overshadowed by his grief for her aunt, Elspeth. Martin writes cryptic crosswords, and suffers from OCD, which is depicted very well. His wife moves out, and eventually Julia tries to help him recover.

The relationship between Julia and Valentina is described in great detail. Julia, the elder, is more outgoing and confident, but also overprotective and possessive about Valentina, who wants independence. Identical twins have always been interesting characters in fiction, sometimes because their similarity enables swaps and mistaken identities, and sometimes because their closeness is something most of us never experience. Much has been said about people's fear of the other, the different. I think there is also a deep-seated fear of the identical, which explains people's discomfort with the idea of clones or of humanoid robots. The phrase "you all look the same to me" is never a compliment. Twins have not only the greatest possible degree of physical similarity, they also have an intimacy grown out of shared experiences that in many cases seems to inhibit the development of their individuality. In this case, Julia and Valentina still dress in identical clothes at 21, and have yet to embark on career paths or have boyfriends, mainly because this would separate them from each other. As the story progresses, Valentina starts expressing her separate identity. This leads to inevitable and painful conflict. It made me grateful that I'm not a twin, and I wonder how many twin readers will identify with this sort of situation.

The supernatural story-line involving the ghost develops mainly in the second half of the book. It was very clear to me quite early on what would happen, so one of the main plot events was no surprise to me. I personally found it hard to accept, but readers who more easily suspend their disbelief might find it satisfying. The long-kept secret is revealed, and many loose ends are tied up in a way that gives relatively happy endings for most of the characters.

The writing is good, both in the descriptions and in the dialogue, where the author often conveys the personalities of the different speakers through their words. In some places there were turns of phrase that distinguished American and British characters and indicated their age and social class, something that many authors fail to achieve.

This novel is worth reading for the characters' interactions and development, even for readers like me who find the idea of ghosts difficult to accept.

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