Posted by: gdevi | January 9, 2012

Book review: Her Fearful Symmetry (2009)

Audrey Niffenegger. Her Fearful Symmetry. Scribner, 2009, pp. 406.

Both homicide detectives and spiritual people know that nothing lies buried for long: corpses get discovered, dead souls and ghosts are dealt with and sent to heaven, hell or limbo, as their respective cases might be. Audrey Niffenegger’s second novel Her Fearful Symmetry is part a subtle psychological crime novel and part conventional ghost story, and draws from conventions of both genres in unique and interesting ways. In particular, the crime–the murder–is committed by a ghost, a perverse haunting wherein a ghost that refuses to accept that she is dead kills another woman to inhabit her body so she can live with her former lover. The murdered woman is her own niece to whom her former lover feels attracted. There is no police work involved in solving this crime. The lover who does not mind the lustrousness of death–he is writing a doctoral dissertation on the Highgate Cemetery in the city of London and feels quite comfortable with death–is repelled by this crime upon discovery, bides his time and then leaves the old lover in the new woman’s body trying to make a family with him. In other words, the premise of this novel is as old as life itself. You cannot escape death; if once you cross over and make attempts to come back, your monstrous return will become subject to the “fearful symmetry” of nature or god or law–whatever you choose to call this supernatural power–of life and death. You cannot switch spirits; one spirit for one body, that is the rule. The title is an allusion to Blake’s poem “The Tiger,” who is evoked in the eulogy made for the young dead woman by her twin sister.  “When I die I am going to be that tiger,” the young woman had remarked as a child upon seeing a tiger.  Thus this young woman becomes the forceful hand of nature in this novel. Like Blake, Niffenegger is a visual artist and print-maker interested in conceptualizing the mythos of life, death and afterlife. Thus the setting of this novel is distributed around the Highgate Cemetery in the city of London, and a block of apartments close to the cemetery–unusual apertures for us to witness the life-and-death struggles of characters who cling to life and the city, while afterlife and eternity await them in the marvelously ornate mausoleums right next door. This is an ironic book at heart. The cemetery is after all a place of symmetry.

Life and death are not the only symmetries explored in this novel. The plot involves two sets of twins, one set of “mirror twins,” Julia and Valentina Poole,  and one set of “identical twins,” Edie and Elspeth Noblin, who not only serve as doppelgangers of each other’s identity, but also whose life stories imitate and intersect each other’s in a naturalistically deterministic and ultimately tragic way. The novel opens with Elspeth’s death in London at 44 years of cancer, and the grief of Robert Fanshaw, her much younger lover who tries to cope with Elspeth’s demise. The narrative events are set in motion with Elspeth leaving her sizable fortune, her apartment and all her significant wealth to her nieces Julia and Valentina, her twin sister Edie’s children who live with their parents in America. The twins essentially will never have to work again in their lives thanks to this inheritance. Elspeth’s will has a strange clause that the twins should live in her apartment at Vautravers for a year after which they can do with it as they please. The will also strangely stipulates that neither her sister Edie nor husband Jack are to set foot in the apartment. Edie and Elspeth’s falling-out and its secret reasons make up part of the mystery of obsessive relationships explored in the novel, the relationship between twins, in general, and these twins in particular. Julia and Valentina, both twenty-one are understandably thrilled to be free from their parents and move to London and live on their own. Even though both sets of twins share many aspects of character and appearance, Niffenegger makes them unique as well, just as all human beings are individualistic in their own ways. Julia is outgoing, Valentina is the shy one–she is called “the mouse.” Edie, their mother is a cipher of a woman, and Elspeth is ambitious, scheming and rather unempathetic of others. Robert, her lover, for instance, at times thinks of himself as “her creature.” Obsessiveness itself acquires its doppelganger element in the novel in the character of Martin, who is a diagnosed with OCD at the beginning of the novel, and whose good-natured wife Marijke eventually leaves him unable to stand the countings, the incessant hand-washing and bleaching, the scrubbing of floors, the papered windows and floors, the strange rituals to enter and leave rooms, and his refusal to accept medical treatment for his condition. This novel has one of the best descriptions of the illness of OCD behaviors.  Julia, Valentina, Martin and Robert all live in the Vautravers apartment building, and the novel’s emphasis on symmetry is extended to the friendship Julia strikes up with Martin, the gradual way in which she helps Martin to fight his OCD behaviors, eventually making him confident enough to leave the apartment itself and go to Marijke, and the tragic attraction between Valentina and Robert. It is also mirrored in the decisions of both Martin and Robert to leave their sickness and obsessions behind and become free at the end. Martin takes the huge step to control his OCD ticks and go to Marijke, and Robert leaves his old lover Elspeth masquerading inside the murdered Valentina’s body.  Natural law endures.

The bulk of the earlier sections of this novel is devoted to the leisurely exposition of the twins’ exploration of London, which Niffenegger deftly uses to lay bare the growing distance between them, the necessary tension that follows the inevitable separation of their distinct identities as Julia and Valentina and not “the twins.” I enjoyed these sections tremendously; Niffenegger captures the world of young, intelligent twenty-year old women beautifully in these chapters. Right away, we sense that children who grow up with solid attention from their families seek to recreate the same intensity in all their future relationships, which can either become a blessing or a curse, depending on how and where they process this need. Valentina’s and Robert’s tentative attraction towards each other suggests some of this cerebral contentment.

While Niffenegger who has worked as a guide at the Highgate cemetery is adept at entrancing descriptions of the graves and the cemetery, she takes a conventional approach, successfully I might add, in describing the haunting of Elspeth’s apartment, or I should say, a la the English, “flat.” Julia, Valentina and Robert communicate with Elspeth via ouija boards, seances, and automatic writing, and Elspeth, before she takes over Valentina’s body, appears as puff of air, white smoke, hazy shade etc.  I want to avoid spoilers, so I will not give away the story of Valentina’s murder, but this killing is also treated within the conventions of ghost narratives. I believe this adoption of the ease of convention is intentional on Niffenegger’s part: ghosts are representational devices anyway, and Niffenegger’s real attempt here is to investigate the nature of death through the character of a ghost. Is death freedom? Is life better than death? Why are we afraid of death that we wish to cling to life through hook or crook? I loved Niffenegger’s description of Valentina’s spirit:

Now the vast throng of crows rose out of Highgate Cemetery in unison, and the ghosts with them, their dark dresses and winding sheets flapping wing-like in the sky. They flew over Waterlow Park, circled around to fly across the Heath, and on and on, until they came to the Thames and began to follow the river eastwards, past the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Bridge, past the Embankment, London Bridge, the Tower, and on and on. Valentina held tightly to her crow. The kitten purred in her ear. I’m so happy, she thought with surprise. The sun passed through the ghosts undimmed, and the shadows of the crows darkened the river. (399)

The epigraph to the novel are the first few lines from the Beatles’ song “She said She said” from their 1966 album Revolver: “She said, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead. I know what it is to be sad.’  And she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born.” In a way, the monstrous manipulation of death and life embodied by the character of Elspeth, a sort of living-dead, is in stark contrast to the contended death of Valentina and the hard-earned freedom of all the other characters–Julia and Theo, Martin and Marijke, and Robert. Her Fearful Symmetry is a well-paced, engrossing and thoughtful novel, vividly contemporary in its character and setting, but harking back to the atmospheric gothic novels of an older time, just like the crows that circle above the Highgate cemetery.


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