Friday, 16 October 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry


Her Fearful Symmetry is in essence a ghost story. Audrey Niffenegger started out writing a book about Martin, the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter for The Guardian; Martin's wife has left him and he has a neighbour Julia who has an annoying roommate. I learned that this was the original premise for the novel at the Audrey Niffenegger reading and signing earlier this week, written about here; it intrigued me to discover how far her original intent deviated into a novel about a ghost and two sets of twins and to observe that Martin -the original protagonist- remained the more engaging, sympathetic, and well-characterised of the characters. Moreover, Martin's flat was supposed to be beside a graveyard known as Graceland, in the Uptown area of Chicago, until Niffenegger decided to set it in the most memorable cemetery she had been to: Highgate Cemetery in North London. Julia's roommate became her twin, Valentina, and then Niffenegger questioned how two twenty-one year olds could afford to live in a flat overlooking Highgate Cemetery so she created an aunt, Elspeth, who died in the opening line of the novel and bequeathed them it; however Elspeth as a character took over and didn't stay dead (the way Audrey Niffenegger put it) and around sixty pages in, she returns as a ghost.

In reading about Her Fearful Symmetry, I never realised that there was an actual ghost; yes, I knew it was a ghost story but I didn't realise that there was a non-fully-fleshed, non corporeal real-life yet dead ghost. The chapter in which Elspeth Noblin (isn't that a ghostly name?) reappears is incredibly amusing; it is entitled "The History of Her Ghost" and below I have quoted the opening and closing lines, which highlights Niffenegger's dry humour and what particularly amused me abut the situation.

Elspeth Noblin had been dead for almost a year now, and she was still figuring out the rules.

She wondered if someone who was already dead could kill herself.

In beginning life as a plot-device, Elspeth propels the plot forward and in many respects it becomes about her life in death; her relationship with her grieving partner; her relationship with her twin nieces; and the mystery of why she and her twin sister -Edie, mother of Julia and Valentina- have not seen one another or spoken for twenty one years. The first chapter of Her Fearful Symmetry, in which Elspeth dies, is entitled "The End" and so too is the final chapter.

Twins intrigue me and this novel has two sets with strained relationships; although I never warmed to the characters of the twins themselves (Elspeth the ghost I enjoyed but she isn't that likable), I was engaged with their struggle for individual identity and freedom; I was also interested in the mirror twin phenomenon of Julia and Valentina (they were not identical twins but mirror images of one another and Valentina was internally reversed). I thought that their twin nature was well-evoked but a twin in the audience at the event this week said that she was somewhat sceptical going in then found it to be the most uncanny, accurate description of twins that she has yet found. Now this is where I may alienate any twin readers ... I think that identical twins -and mirror twins takes it to a new level- lend themselves to the supernatural, creepy, and mysterious genres; Audrey Niffenegger mentioned at the reading that she was somewhat influenced by The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and the phenomenon of the "double" and mistaken identities pervades that text.

It has been several years (at least five) since I read The Time Traveler's Wife and I barely recall it, except for the overall plot, some specific scenes and my overall enjoyment of the novel; I haven't yet seen the recent film adaptation so it is far from fresh in my mind and it would be reductive of me to attempt to compare Niffenegger's runaway successful debut novel with her much-anticipated follow-up but what I will say is that I enjoyed it. It took me a couple of chapters to properly immerse myself in it and I found that the product placing jarred but that could be because this is the first novel that I've read with a modern setting for some time (shockingly so); I find that present-day product names and specific names for places date it very quickly and even cheapen it. I think that Her Fearful Symmetry was far more successful in its Highgate Cemetery setting and its ghostly plot than its up-to-the-minute overview of London; one anachronism I noticed -not historically inaccurate but something already out-of-date- shows how dangerous it is to set a book in a modern time period that is at once not timeless nor definitive. This was the one main flaw that I had with the novel but the lack of likability of the main characters was another; Martin I found truly likable and also Jessica, the figurehead for the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, whom I had the feeling was based on the real-life Jean Pateman, Audrey Niffenegger's boss at Highgate Cemetery and the person to whom she dedicated Her Fearful Symmetry.

I mentioned yesterday how well I thought Highgate Cemetery was incorporated into the book. I thought that the physicality of the cemetery was well depicted as was its essence; I wasn't bored at any point with the historical details and have the utmost respect for Audrey Niffenegger's research skills and how much detail she packed into the novel without it being, in my opinion, detrimental to the plot. The sheer magnitude of knowledge about Highgate Cemetery was the strength of the novel as was the supernatural route the plot took, especially as the author is admittedly a sceptic. Someone at the reading event aptly described Niffenegger's novels as studies of other ways of being and it is a term that she instantly liked and said she would begin to use herself; other ways of being can indeed be applied to Her Fearful Symmetry as it is very much about being and existence: how to exist as a twin; how to exist as a ghost; how to exist with a debilitating mental illness; how to exist when the person you love has left/died.

This was my 3/4 read for the R.I.P. IV Challenge.


18 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

Great review! I wish the whole novel had followed the original plan. I found Martin to be the most engaging character and felt that most of the other characters in the book were not developed well enough - there were too many to fit into such a short book.

I love the way that you have incorporated AN's talk into this review. It will be of great interest to those who weren't lucky enough to be there in the flesh.

Darlene said...

You make me want to pull this book off of the shelf and read it again! Something as simple as AN describing being on the tube on the Northern line can get an anglophile like me excited. For me, the setting made the book.

There isn't a copy of The Time Traveler's Wife to be found in any second-hand shops for love nor money at the moment. I've tried.

Annabel Gaskell said...

I can't wait to read this, swapping vampires for ghosts sounds a good plan to me! Great review by the way...

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks, Jackie; there was still so much that I wanted to mention about the talk but I was worried that it would come across as too confusing. Glad it worked. Martin was the strongest character and the only one I sympathised with (well Marijke too but she was more of a minor character).

Darlene, I certainly connected with the story more because of its setting in London and agree that it made the book.

My copy of TTTW is at home in Glasgow and I would like to reread it for comparison and because I loved the story. I'm not sure about The Book Depository but I know that Amazon UK have it for a very good price currently (but then you would pay postage).

Annabel, it contains some body-snatching of a sort and is still season of the living dead worthy! Glad you enjoyed the review.

softdrink said...

I still have to write up my thoughts on this one. I'm hoping to get to it this weekend.

I think the English cover is MUCH better (and creepier) than the US cover with it's boring wanna-be spooky tree limbs. Those white outfits were just weird to read about...they're even worse on a cover!

Paperback Reader said...

Jill, I look forward to your thoughts. I prefer the UK cover too; the models and the outfits weird me out but it was taken in Highgate Cemetery so particularly appropriate.

JoAnn said...

I *know* I'll be reading this one, it's simply a question of when. Great review, as always.

verity said...

Another wonderful review Claire. You are even making the book start to sound appealing to me :)

savidgereads said...

I agree with Jackie in terms of the character of Martin I could have easily read a whole book about him but then how would the wonderous Highgate Cemetery have become involved?

I wont give away any spoilers but the ending seemed a little OTT for me which was the only thing that alsmot made me go from loving it to liking it a lot. I did utterly love it though.

Paperback Reader said...

JoAnn, thank you. It is always a matter of *when*; so many books...

Verity, haha. For Highgate cemetery alone it is worth reading and it is a strange but enjoyable book.

Simon, I agree that the loss of Highgate would be difficult to reconcile with an entire novel featuring Martin ... the price we pay.

The last one hundred pages or so did indeed become ... odd but I can see where her inspiration came from and that justifies it for me in a way.

Rachel said...

Great review Claire! I think this was one of the most tense and page turning books I've ever read. I agree that Martin was the most sympathetic character...perhaps because he was the one she started with, and she'd rounded him out in her head more than the others.

Paperback Reader said...

Rachel, I completely agree: I think she knew Martin the best as she lived with/knew him the longest. It was tense and definitely a page-turner for me.

Danielle said...

I've bookmarked this post as I'm in the midst of reading this right now. I'm envious that you got to hear AN speak!

Book Bird Dog said...

I commend you for following this writer so closely. Sorry I don't like sci fi, fantasy, or the supernatural so have decided not to read her books, especially since I didn't like the movie, Time Traveler's Wife. So much anguish over something so unreal.

Paperback Reader said...

Danielle, I hope you enjoy it! It was a great event and I really enjoyed her talk.

Paperback Reader said...

Book Bird Dog, thanks for your comment. I haven't seen the film yet but if you didn't like the premise then the novel (and this one) are probably not for you. I do like elements of the unreal or, as I put it in this post from the talk, "other ways of being" as it is complete escapism but can understand others' not liking it.

Nymeth said...

Your point about the current references is an interesting one. On the one hand, I know exactly what you mean - it always gives me a bit of a jolt too see something very current mentioned in a novel. For example, I can't imagine a novel that incorporated Twitter, even though it has become such a part of my life. On the other hand, though, maybe the current references will make it more interesting for readers a few years from now? I always like reading books that seem to belong to a specific era, as long as that era is not my own :P

Anyway, I suspect I won't love this quite as much as TTTW, but I still want to read it, of course!

Paperback Reader said...

Nymeth, I like the thought of future generations enjoying the modern (to them outdated) references. The mention that most jarred for me was a venti decaf soya latte from Starbucks; I love Starbucks but perhaps I don't like so much realism in my fiction. I certainly think it dates it but at the same time it does make it realistic and I identify.
I do enjoy fiction that is timeless, however; I love the timelessness of Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber" (the story as opposed to the volume) because even though there's a train and a telephone it is extremely difficult to pinpoint exactly when in time the story takes place.