Thursday, November 12, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry

I really do like a good ghost story now and then, and Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger’s (The Time Traveler’s Wife) book, fits the bill. Set on the edge of Highgate Cemetery in London, Her Fearful Symmetry is the story of two pairs of twins, one set middle aged and living apart (one on London, one in Chicago) and the other set the daughters of the Chicago twin. When Elspeth, the London twin, dies, and requires that her nieces come live in her apartment without their parents for a year in order to inherit it, the events of the novel are set in motion.

When Valentina and Julia arrive in London, they begin to take over their aunt’s old life. They meet her neighbors, like Martin, an obsessive-compulsive crossword puzzle maker, who can’t leave his apartment, and Robert, Elspeth’s younger boyfriend, who is writing his doctoral thesis on Highgate. They’re also haunted by Elspeth, who declares — “a bad thing about dying is that I’ve started to feel as though I’m being erased. Another bad thing is that I won’t get to find out what happens next.” — and then sticks around to find out what does.

There’s the ghostly mystery of Elspeth’s haunting Robert and the twins, but the living mystery about what happened to cause a rift between Elspeth and her twin Edie is much more interesting. The answers lie in Elspeth's old journals, which she leaves to Robert, but he is unable to let himself read them.

The world and underworld in Her Fearful Symmetry are populated by truly awful, selfish characters — Julia won’t let Valentina finish college or attend design school so she can remain with Julia forever, Martin’s wife runs away to Amsterdam since she can’t handle his obsessions, Elspeth isn’t quite the friendly ghost she seems at first — but they manage to pull you in, much like they pull various characters into their webs of deceit.

About three-quarters through, the novel takes a rather morbid turn, but Niffenegger is a brilliant plotter and her text, which is fantastical from page one, gets even more so. She uses the supernatural in her books, but it never seems like it actually is, and Her Fearful Symmetry evokes 19th century sensation novels. Dark, eerie and often funny, Her Fearful Symmetry is meant to be read while curled up under a blanket on a cold winter's night.

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