Saturday, October 31, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry

80. Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

It seems only appropriate to observe Hallowe'en by reviewing a novel in which one of the main characters is a ghost.

Elspeth Noblin and Edwina Moore are twins who have been estranged for years. When Elspeth dies, she leaves her entire estate to her nieces, Valentina and Julia, who are mirror twins, with the stipulation that they must reside in flat, overlooking Highgate Cemetery, for one year, and that their parents must not set foot in the place. When the twins arrive, they discover that although Elspeth may be dead, she still inhabits her old home. At first merely a felt presence, she gradually begins to be seen by, and then to communicate with, the twins, as well as her lover, who lives in the flat below.

Valentina and Julia have very different personalities. Julia is the dominant and decisive twin, who looks after asthmatic and timid Valentina. Each becomes involved with a neighbor, Valentina becoming attached to Robert, Elspeth's younger lover, and Julia spending time with Martin, the upstairs neighbor whose OCD keeps him indoors all the time and led his wife to return to her native Netherlands.

As their year passes, Valentina's desire for independence intersects with and is seized upon by Elspeth's ghost, who conceives a scheme to help her break free of Julia, a scheme in which they involve Robert. (And that's about all I can say without giving a lot away!)

I've been a fan of Niffenegger's writing for years, when I discovered her writing the catalog for Chicago's Center for Book and Paper Arts (though I don't think she writes it any more), and Her Fearful Symmetry did not disappoint. This is an eerie book, with surprises around every corner, beautifully evocative. At certain points, I found myself wanting to say, "No! Don't do that! It's a mistake!", and actually stopped reading occasionally because I feared what would happen next. I wasn't always right.

Readers of Niffenegger's other works with recognize the Gothic sensibility as well as a variety of familiar themes: rival sisters, pregnancy, odd physical characteristics (Valentina has situs inversus, in which the internal organs are reversed), wandering ghosts, flight (in both senses of the word). There were images which here are in words but that I recalled from her illustrated novels, The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress. In this novel, as well as The Time Traveler's Wife, she has taken ideas which in those novels are presented in isolated and (generally) unspecified locations and times, and placed them in the contemporary world, where they are all the more startling for their incongruity.


  1. I loved this book--such a spooky read!

  2. Sounds interesting. I'm reading a ghost story now, too. Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, but it is very slow going! Even the scary parts are excessively wordy, in my opinion.