Audrey Niffenegger writes great fiction.
Having turned time on its head in her previous novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, I’d have bought Audrey Niffenegger’s new book Her Fearful Symmetry even if I hadn’t been sent a review copy. This time, she turns life and death on its head. This time she managed to bring tears to my eyes in the first chapter rather than the closing one – somewhat unusual!
It’s a book about Julia and Valentina Poole who are identical “mirror” twins – mirror images of each other, externally and also their internal organs.
Julia is confident and extrovert, brusque and bossy. Whereas her fragile twin Valentina is shy and inhibited, nicknamed "Mouse", sensitive to being watched as well as sensitive to the mood of nearby ghosts.
Although they don’t know her, when their Aunt Elspeth dies, she leaves her London flat to the twins, on the condition that they spend a year living there. The plot follows the twins as they leave their family home in the US and move to central London to occupy the apartment that backs onto Highgate Cemetery.
Like the twins themselves, there's a beautiful symmetry in the men they grow close to, each relationship overshadowed by a previous unfinished love.
Martin lives upstairs, and since his wife moved out he’s been unable to leave his flat. Through one of those multiple occupancy incidents when water comes through the ceiling, Julia befriends him and becomes is drawn to the man behind the OCD.
Robert lives downstairs. As Elspeth’s lover, he was supposed to welcome them and look after them. But he’s shy, missing Elspeth and too attached to the cemetery for his own good. Soon he’s besotted with Valentina. And watch out for the Little Kitten of Death.
I’m not sure that anyone’s actually happy in the book: neither the living nor the dead. Though as the reader gets to the last third of the book, all but the twins seem to be making progress towards their goals.
Like a brilliant play, not all the well constructed and imaginative characters get to meet each other on stage at the same time. Written in the third person we see inside everyone's head – like a giant voyeuristic plot.
Speaking to Julia, Martin summed the twins up well when he observes:
“You're like an old married couple, you and Valentina. You have everything divvied up, all the talents and the chores.”
They're fiercely protective of each other, asserting their right to be there and help each other ahead of any other assistance. Yet behind the virginal white matching outfits, there's abuse and a bit of a history of hitting and biting, spitting and pulling hair. As the book progresses, the twins spend less time together. The perfect twin-ship is unravelling:
‘Don’t you think it’s time we started having our own lives?’ Oh, God, just let go, Julia.
‘We do! We have out own lives together—’ Valentina!
‘That’s not what I mean!’ Valentina threw the shoes across the room. They bounced harmlessly on the carpet. ‘You know what I mean – I want my own life. I want privacy! I’m sick of being half a person.’
It’s a ghost story too. I’m not sure when I last read a ghost story? It takes a very humanist approach and one that at times left me wondering how? and why? and really? At the same time, the ghosts have such good characters. Without spoiling the plot, there’s a great moment half way through when a ghost finally finds a way to communicate with the living.
____ places a tentative fingertip on the piano. She recalled reading somewhere that household dust was largely comprised of shed human skin cells. So perhaps I’m writing with bits of my former body. The dust gave way , soft particles yielding as she traced a shiny path. She exulted in the ease of it ...
Perhaps in a nod to the science fiction genre that the novel could so easily fit into, there’s even a mention of Doctor Who and Madame de Pompadour!
A book about twins. A book about London viewed through the eyes of visitors. A book about the wonder of Highgate Cemetery, those who look after it as well as those buried there. A book about those with restless souls and the lengths they’ll go to be at peace.
The prose is superb, the story is original, the plot is beautifully balanced between detail and pace. You need a good reason not to buy, borrow or steal this book. Dan Brown may be easier to spell, but Audrey Niffenegger is a much better read.