Life and death beyond the looking glass

Sara Veal

Audrey Niffenegger’s literary smash debut The Time Traveler’s Wife is a hard act to follow, but her second novel proves she’s not a one hit wonder.

Her Fearful Symmetry
, a modern ghost story involving twins and family secrets against the backdrop of London’s historic Highgate Cemetery, is absorbing and addictive – a high-brow page-turner occasionally reminiscent of Henry James and Charles Dickens at their most macabre.

Julia and Valentina Poole, 20-year-old American “mirror” twins, indolently while away time in their parents’ comfortable home, undecided about what to do with their lives.

They’re finally given direction when their estranged Aunt Elspeth – identical twin to their mother Edie – passes away, bequeathing them all her worldly possessions.

The one stipulation is they have to live together in her London flat beside Highgate Cemetery for one year.

What they don’t know is that Elspeth’s ghost also comes with the flat, a fact that will change their lives forever.

Once again, Niffenegger inserts a fantastic element into a tangible setting, making the uncanny seem plausible without over-explanation. This succeeds largely due to her precise, visual way with language, painting images in the reader’s mind.

Elspeth’s ghostly development is imaginatively expressed – she contains herself within drawers, short-circuits electrical appliances, uses dust as a mode of communication and touches the squirmy souls of the living.

But while The Time Traveler’s Wife centered on the titular characters’ romance, Her Fearful Symmetry is very much an ensemble piece. It’s driven by intense love between the two generations of twins, and several couples, in more or less equal amounts.

In what seems to be a trend for Niffenegger – and doubtless reflective of her own bohemian literary circle – the novel is populated with peculiar but brilliant and articulate characters, which add to its graceful tone.

Julia and Valentina, despite being consecutive university dropouts, are bright autodidacts. Julia, the dominant twin, is endlessly curious while the shyer, frailer Valentina is a whiz with the sewing machine. Although they perform many activities in tandem, they have individual voices, and command empathy in distinct ways.

Their aunt Elspeth, formerly an antique bookseller, was reportedly caustic and witty in life, although her ghost self is a lot more mysterious, even to the reader.

Robert, Elspeth’s younger, compassionate lover and neigh-bor, is writing a doctoral thesis on Highgate Cemetery as well as acting as a voluntary cemetery guide.

He’s an awkward romantic hero, a prize that two generations of women quietly tussle over, and almost as directionless as the twins.

Martin, who occupies the third and final flat in the twins’ building, sets the crossword puzzle for The Guardian and deciphers ancient artifacts for the British Museum.

He also suffers from severe obsessive compulsive disorder, a condition that drives his Dutch wife Marijke, a radio journalist, back to Holland.

Niffenegger portrays his disorder believably, finding both humor and pathos in it. His self-trapping echoes the twins’ impasse and Elspeth’s haunted confinement.

Niffenegger exploits the twin aspect in myriad ways, weaving symmetry into the characterization, using it to explore notions of identity and sibling love. The characters all have an echo or shadow, whether in situation, personality or appearance.

She subtly plants seeds of foreshadowing throughout the narrative, which lends the story a mirror structure that is evident only in hindsight.

This mirror craftily conceals the mystery that propels the tale on – the deeply buried family secret that tore the first set of twins apart. Thankfully, the twist’s unveiling does not deflate the power of the story, which is bolstered by careful character studies and elegant details.

The best of these details and observations are the ones that breathe life into Highgate Cemetery, the core around which many of the characters’ lives revolve.

Through Robert, Niffenegger shares her painstaking research into the historical grounds, educating the reader with gems about famous occupants, such as Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti, muse and wife of master painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

With an artist’s eye – her other occupation – she describes the unusual beauty of the grand, mossy graves, conveying the graveyard’s metamorphosis throughout the seasons.

The cemetery may be a place of death, but it is envisaged as soothing and peaceful rather than horrific, for the most part.

Once, in a scene that recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, the cemetery finally becomes sinister, casting a gothic glow on those complicit in a horrific act.

A strong sense of contemporary London and all its nooks and crannies also comes forth, through Julia and Valentina, who are new to the city, and have differing responses to its confusion and bustle, further hinting at the fundamental divisions between them.

The colors of the city contrast with the grays and greens of the graveyard, emphasizing the contained universe atmosphere of the latter.

Befitting the graveyard-centric setting, a sense of melancholy pervades, building toward further devastation. Many of the characters deal with grief and regret: Edie for her lost sister, Robert for his lover, Martin for his separated wife, Elspeth for a life tainted by secrets. When the worst happens, the reader too will share a sense of loss and revulsion.

Yet the bittersweet finale is somehow also uplifting. Niffenegger finds beauty in the horror, and grants all her lovingly rendered characters the endings they deserve, ones that ring true within the novel’s context.

It’s an ending that admittedly felt unsatisfying the first time around, but develops over time, particularly with the benefit of a reread, which, as mentioned, highlights the careful mirror construction below the surface.

Niffenegger has once again proved herself as a formidable and distinctive author, one that will hopefully continue to deliver this kind of sublime, easily digestible reflection on the human condition for a long time to come.

Her Fearful Symmetry
by Audrey Niffenegger
Jonathan Cape Ltd, 400 pages

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