Sunday, 10 October 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

In many ways,’ Her Fearful Symmetry’ is a classic ghost story expressing the basic human need to stay in touch with deceased loved ones, alongside echoes of the horror of such tales as 'Frankenstein'.

All set around the majestically gothic Highgate Cemetery and the premature death of Elspeth, the fragility of two virginal twin girls' story in a strange country is interspersed with obsession on many levels. Martin and his fearful compulsive rituals, grieving lover Robert with his need to stay around Elspeth’s ghost and Julia’s dependency and control over the weaker twin Valentina are portrayed brilliantly.

There are hidden family secrets and the portrayal of the darker side of humanity within the basic need to continue to live/exist on some level after death at any cost. Jealousy and desperation for personal freedom from earthly and unearthly entrapment are familiar themes for Niffenegger, at her best known for pulling readers into quite ‘unbelievable’ stories woven in with every day experience and pressure of human relationships.

I enjoyed Niffenegger’s debut ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’, once I got over the American spelling of 'Traveler', how up tightly English of me; however, I was prepared for mixed feelings with her second novel as I found the ending to this first effort of hers dissatisfying. This book took on a similar feel, I loved parts and felt the pace became a little changeable with somewhat over sensational endings to some of the characters’ stories. However, the ultimate ending to this novel and Elspeth’s continued ‘existence’ was more satisfying on a karmic level and flawed the love that started the haunting.

It could just be me but the pace within Niffenegger’s novels seems too erratic with the story turning into a ‘mad rush’ towards the end, tying up loose ends of subplots at 100mph leaving me wondering if I missed something? I want to comment more on Valentina’s twice over ‘ending’ but can’t without a spoiler alert.

 The identical but mirrored twins, Julia and Valentina, seem to go on and mirror their mother and aunt, Elspeth and Edith, and fraught with the same struggles with dependency and interdependency. Many hints are given early on of a maternal confusion over the younger twins, this ‘muddle’ theme carries on from Niffenegger’s first novel. 


I’m not convinced that this writing tool of hers adds suspense or rather frustrating vagueness, I’m pretty sure some would have given up in the first few pages through sheer frustration at said ‘time and place’ confusion in 'The Time Traveler’s Wife', and with this one the ‘identity’ muddle and merging of essentially two humans locked in a battle striving for separation and ‘uniqueness’. I suppose it depends on the patience of the reader in that pull into these characters' stories.

The depiction of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and the pressure that puts on loved ones was very moving in the story of Martin and Marijke. Again, their ending seemed pulled together too swiftly, however their love story was the one I found the most sympathetic and real. The gothic melodrama of Valentina’s desperate measure to rid herself of her domineering twin Julia comes too late in comparison.

I found Elspeth and Edith’s estrangement a little unconvincing and was relieved that the ‘big’ secret was revealed as ‘not so buried’ towards the end. I was surprised, Niffenegger’s novels are hardly predictable, however I thought this part of the story would be much darker and chilling; where was the ‘fearful’ in the book's title?

Some of the deepening feelings amongst the main characters seem to be too rapid again, in particular Robert and Valentina. The horror of Valentina’s request and demise was suitably chilling and, call me cynical, would lend very well to another film adaptation and I did wonder if this was a consideration for the sudden ‘action’ at the expense of more detailed atmosphere in the final chapters.

Elspeth’s dark side is convincing and the possible explanations for her demise into it on the ‘other side’ were quite interesting if hard to digest from any sort of spiritual perspective. All in all, I liked the book but felt more aware of some of the details in this that didn’t ring true in comparison to 'The Time Traveler’s Wife'. I think to sum up completely, I liked both books equally but had the same minor criticisms with both at different points in each, mostly with the pace of the stories.

What I did absolutely love about the novel was the warmth in the description of  Highgate Cemetery.  In its detailed portrayal of the gothic Victorian beauty of one of London’s most famous places of the dead, this was told as a love affair in itself. The gaunt grief stricken Robert’s thesis and passion for telling the stories of those laid to rest within its gates were fascinating and could be a book in itself. The pre-Raphaelite Gabriel Rossetti and the story of the exhuming of Lizzie Siddal's grave strangely hints at the macabre twisted body ‘snatching’ from the Noble Mausoleum towards the end of the novel.

‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ is an enjoyable read, but does it have longetivity?  I'm not so sure... in comparison to Niffenegger's first acclaimed novel, I think it's on the same level if overlooking the sci-fi for the ghost story, the compelling element coming a little too late for me and taking on the speed of a soap opera for the final chapters.

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