Reviews

Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger

Julia and Valentina Poole are normal American teenagers – normal, at least, for identical ‘mirror’ twins who have no interest in college or jobs or possibly anything outside their cozy suburban home. But everything changes when they receive notice that an aunt whom they didn’t know existed has died and left them her flat in an apartment block overlooking Highgate Cemetery in London.

They feel that at last their own lives can begin … but have no idea that they’ve been summoned into a tangle of fraying lives, from the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives above them to their aunt’s mysterious and elusive lover who lives below them, and even to their aunt herself, who never got over her estrangement from the twins’ mother – and who can’t even seem to quite leave her flat.

With Highgate Cemetery itself a character and echoes of Henry James and Charles Dickens, HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY is a delicious and deadly twenty-first-century ghost story about Niffenegger’s familiar themes of love, loss and identity. It is certain to cement her standing as one of the most singular and remarkable novelists of our time.

About the Author:

Audrey Niffenegger (born June 13, 1963 in South Haven, Michigan) is a writer and artist. She is also a professor in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Columbia College Chicago.

Niffenegger’s debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), was a national bestseller. The Time Traveler’s Wife is an unconventional love story that centers on a man with a strange genetic disorder that causes him to unpredictably time-travel and his wife, an artist, who has to cope with his constant absence.

Her Fearful Symmetry (2009), Niffenegger’s second novel, is set in London’s Highgate Cemetery where, during research for the book, Niffenegger acted as a tour guide.

Niffenegger has also published graphic and illustrated novels including: The Adventuress (2006), The Three Incestuous Sisters (2005), The Night Bookmobile (2009), and Raven Girl (2013). Raven Girl was adapted into a ballet by Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor and the Royal Opera House Ballet (London) in 2013.

A mid-career retrospective entitled “Awake in the Dream World: The Art of Audrey Niffenegger,” was presented by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington D.C.) in 2013. An accompanying exhibition catalogue examines several themes in Niffenegger’s visual art including her explorations of life, mortality, and magic.

My Review:

This is my first book by Audrey Niffenegger (yes that means I haven’t read The Time Traveller’s Wife!!) so I didn’t know what to expect, but Her Fearful Symmetry came highly recommended on THE Book Club on Facebook when I asked for spooky books about twins (don’t judge me!),

If you like atmospheric, character driven stories then I would definitely recommend this book.  This beautifully written book is set in Highgate, London – an area I know quite well and centres around Highgate Cemetery – which I didn’t know much about until reading this book.  Highgate Cemetery is such an important part of the book that it could be classed as one of the main characters.  The historical facts and descriptions throughout the story bring the cemetery to life.

Her Fearful Symmetry does feature real characters and to say they are quirky is perhaps an understatement.  We are introduced to Elspeth Noblin, a 44 year old antique book dealer, dying of leukaemia in a hospital bed and Robert, Elspeth’s young lover, who lives in the flat below her and works as a tour guide at the Cemetery.

When Elspeth dies, she leaves her flat and all the contents to her twin nieces Julia and Valentina, the daughters of her estranged twin sister Edwina who she hasn’t seen or spoken to in over twenty years.

Julia and Valentina are “mirror” twins, living in America with their parents and have absolutely no knowledge their mother is a twin or anything about Elspeth and take the opportunity to move to London as an adventure.  This book looks closely at the twins relationship and dependence upon each other, which becomes an issue as the story unfolds.  Valentina has always been the “weaker” twin, born with health issues, Julia has always decided everything for the twins from their clothing to whether they attend college and having lived in her sister’s shadow all her life, moving to London gives Valentina the strength to try to break away.

In the flat above the twins lives Martin, a man who is crippled by his obsessive compulsive disorder.  His illness has become so bad he is unable to leave his flat and forced his wife to leave and return to her native home of Amsterdam.  Martin strikes up an unlikely friendship with Julia which I personally found touching and moving at times.

With so many characters, some lovable and some not so much, Her Fearful Symmetry is a love story, a ghost story and a wonderful history lesson combined.

 

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