Friday, 31 July 2015

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

A while ago I read Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I like very much. So it was with great anticipation, I grabbed another of her books The Fearful Symmetry. Some years ago I read an interview with her, where she was talking about the story of this book. It seemed fascinating, so at a time, I bought it. So, as you see, these two books have graced my TBR shelves for some time, but not anymore!

The Fearful Symmetry is a very ‘illusive’ story that lingers on the border between life and death. Julia and Valentina Poole are twins and, as usual with twins, they are doing everything together. One day they receive a letter from an English lawyer stating that their aunt Elspeth Noblin has left them her flat, overlooking Highgate cemetery. There is only one condition of the inheritance; their mother is not allowed to cross the threshold. At this point they did not even know they had an aunt. Their mother is reluctant to speak about her and for the twins it is quite a mystery, but a way out of a dead-lock, since they don't know what to do after their studies.

Highgate Cemetery is a burial ground in London, where many famous people have got their last rest. Robert, the boyfriend of Elspeth is writing a thesis on the Cemetery and works as a tour guide there as well. He lives in the flat under Elspeth. On the top floor lives Martin, a man whose main interest is creating scientific cross words, has an obsessive-compulsive disorder and has not left his flat for 20 years. His Dutch wife Marijke finally can’t stand it anymore and leaves him to move back to the Netherlands as the book starts. This is where the twins move in.

As with The Times Traveller’s wife the characters in this book are not all what they seem to be. As it turns out most of them are hiding things, which are slowly revealed as the story is unfold. The Time Traveller’s wife moved in a diffuse world travelling through time. Her Fearful Symmetry is not far behind, exploring the world of the dead, or the world in-between, where the ghosts and souls of the dead are staying.

Elspeth finds herself in this ‘netherworld’ and she does not like it. Having been such a strong person, she is now weak. As a ghost she can’t even move the smallest items around! Not giving up she is practicing in order to make the twins and Robert to notice her.  Maybe there is a possibility to contact the living, make yourself known? She is watching Robert and the twins moving through her flat. Until one day she is able to make contact.

Audrey Niffenegger manages to write a story which is very balanced, in spite of the difficulty to describe a world that is not very physical. It is thrilling, horrendous and exciting. You wonder how she will tie all the knots in the end. At a certain point you think you know where the story is going, but there is still a twist in the end. And even then, another twist. I suppose you could put this book in the same category as Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. A modern version of people wanting to create and control life.

The Highgate Cemetery is very well described in the book, and it certainly invites you to visit it. There is also a reference to Elizabeth Siddal who is buried here. She was a model to the Pre-Raphaelites (Lizzie Siddal - The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley my review here).  Here an extract from one of Robert’s wanderings through the cemetery:

“Tonight he stood by the Rossettis and thought about Elizabeth Siddal. He had rewritten the chapter devoted to her numerous times, more for the pleasure of thinking about Lizzie than because he had anything new to say about her. Robert fondled her life’s trajectory in his mind: her humble beginnings as a milliner’s girl; her discovery by the Pre-Raphaelite painters, who enlisted her as a model; her promotion to adored mistress of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Unexplained illnesses, her long-awaited marriage to Rossetti; a stillborn daughter. Her death by laudanum poisoning. A guilt-ridden Dante Gabriel, slipping a unique manuscript of his poems into his wife’s casket. Seven years later, the exhumation of Lizzie at night, by bonfire light, to retrieve the poems. Robert relished all of it. he stood with his eyes closed, imagining the grave in 1869, not so hemmed in by other graves, the men digging, the flickering light of the fire.”

Little would he know that within a short, he would be part of something more dire than an exhumation.

What a book! A page-turner, well worked out characters, and a story that goes beyond it all. It is a story of the power of love and what we do for it. For sure it can also be seen as a ghost story. Maybe even equalling The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (my review here).

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