Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
This is a rather disturbing book. Or perhaps not: I don't know.
Perhaps it is only disturbing because it is written by Niffenegger, who so manipulated our emotions in The Time Traveler's Wife, a book that still makes my heart flutter and sigh each time I think of it.  

Her Fearful Symmetry is also about love. And loss, and identity, and mental illness. And it's also a ghost story, with a real live ghost.

It begins with the death of Elspeth Noblin, who bequeaths her flat to the daughters of her estranged twin. Julia and Valentina, also twins, American and just 21 years old, must live there for a year in order to inherit the flat permanently. Upstairs lives Martin: linguist, crossword-puzzle composer, and OCD sufferer. Downstairs lives Robert, Elspeth's bereaved lover. Just outside the house lies Highgate Cemetery, where Robert volunteers and Elspeth is buried. But Elspeth isn't really there. She is still in the flat: watching, listening.

I wasn't sure at first where the plot was going, but when it does show up it is with signposts rather than subtle clues pointing the way, and I immediately guessed what was going to happen. Perhaps it was this that made it more disturbing: as threads begin to unravel and things fall apart, the sick-fear of inevitability sets in. The action, as it unfolds, is enjoyable, and the description detailed. In one odd instance, we find ourselves reading about a specific episode of Doctor Who, described scene by scene, and one wonders if this is a knowing nod to the episode of Who that seems to draw quite heavily on The Time Traveler's Wife for inspiration.

There is nothing gruesome here. There are no assumptions made about the afterlife. But what happens is unsettling, distasteful, disturbing. And everything is tainted with claustrophobia, with fear of loss of identity, loss of love, loss of mind. The characters - aside from Martin - are unsympathetic and not worthy of caring about. The writing doesn't suggest or invite care or empathy. Only the actions of the characters invoke a reaction, an emotional response. But the motives given for their actions are weak, and the many plot holes glossed over and unexplained. Suspension of disbelief isn't the issue: I can believe in ghosts, but the story itself still needs to be believable! One redeeming feature is the description of Highgate Cemetery, which almost becomes a character in its own right, and Niffenegger has certainly done her research here.

This novel doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. It's too complex to be a straightforward ghost story. But it's too far-fetched to be a novel of ideas. With The Time Traveler's Wife Niffenegger created her own world and stuck to the rules. She doesn't seem to do that here. One wonders how much of what she has done here is deliberate, and how much mere oversight. I don't know what to think of this book. I both enjoyed it and intensely disliked it. I feel as though it should be better but I'm not sure that it is.

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