Twins & Ghosts – a complex combination

Season Living Dead Other Monsters

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

There was an awful lot written about this book around the time of its publication last year.  I generally prefer to miss all the hullaballoo, to let things settle down for a bit and read books at the time of my choosing. This autumn, I decided to include it in my Season of the living dead as it is a ghostly tale. This turns out to be timely as the paperback has recently been released.  By the way, I think the hardback cover (left) is far more atmospheric than the fluffier paperback one (right).

The novel centres around the occupants of a large house converted into flats adjoining Highgate Cemetery.  It also involves two pairs of identical twins. Elspeth and Edie are estranged, and Elspeth actually dies in hospital in the first sentence of the book …

Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup.

But Elspeth lives on as a ghost, haunting her flat, missing her lover Robert who lives in one of the other apartments. Elspeth had made a rather strange will, she left nearly all of her posessions and flat to Edie’s twin daughters, Julia and Valentina, if they live in it for a year, and that their parents must never set foot inside.  Julia and Valentina are just 21, and the idea of moving to London from the US is irresistible.  Elspeth gradually gets stronger as a ghost, and finds ways to communicate with Robert and the twins, in particular she clicks with Valentina who is sickly as a result of being the weaker baby and a mirror image twin.  Also living in the house are Martin and Marijke. They are very much in love, but Martin suffers from such severe OCD, and Marijke will soon flee back to Amsterdam, until he sorts himself out.

The other star of this novel is Highgate Cemetery; Robert is a volunteer guide and is writing a book about its inhabitants. We are left in no doubt that the author knows the area well – much has been made of her training to become a guide at Highgate herself as research.  As cemeteries go, it is up there with Père Lachaise in Paris for the quantity of its celebrated graves, and we do read a lot about the place and how it is operated.

Highgate Cemetery Egyptian Avenue.
Highgate Cemetery, Egyptian Avenue. Photo by Roger Noguera Arnau

So that’s the set-up from which Niffenegger crafts her thrilling tale, which gets more and more complex as the chapters speed by ending with rather a rush – but it is full of thrills, both pleasant and rather nasty with some just desserts meted out. It is really Robert and Elspeth’s novel. The twins are almost like a ‘MacGuffin’ – there to drive the plot. Martin who is a superb character, despite his own problems provides the sanity that gives a welcome relief to the problems all the others have in communicating with a ghost. I really didn’t work out what was going to happen in the end either, that took me completely by surprise.

Overall, I found it lacked the emotional impact that made The Time Travellers Wife such a wonderful read. That was a book that made me cry – twice! Her Fearful Symmetry is engaging and original and I really enjoyed reading it. (7.5/10)

I see that Niffenegger has now published her first graphic novel set in a library, The Night Bookmobile – it sounds exciting too and that’s gone on my wishlist.

For some other reviews, visit Vulpes LibrisSavidge Reads, and Farm Lane Books.

Source: Own copy

Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry (Vintage, 2010) paperback, 496 pages.

Leave a Reply