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Reviews Wed Sep 16 2009
Her Fearful Symmetry
by Audrey Niffenegger
A woman dies. This is how Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry begins - not with a beginning, but with an end. The woman in question is Elspeth Noblin, lover of Robert Farnsworth, identical twin sister to Edie Poole and aunt to identical twin nieces Julia and Valentina. Elspeth, who, at the age of forty-four, has met an early death at the hands of leukemia, has stipulated only a few items in her will: Her London flat will go to her nieces upon their turning twenty-one years of age on the condition that they live in it for a year and their parents never set foot in it, and all of her diaries and other personal papers will go to Robert. They are seemingly easy requests and the twins, with some anxiety, prepare to leave their Lake Forest home where they've lived with their parents all twenty years of their lives, wishing that they had been able to know their aunt. Robert manages to clear out the flat, though he can't yet bring himself to read Elspeth's papers and wants nothing more than to have her back. Unbeknownst to either party, Elspeth will return and haunt them both.
The rules of Elspeth's haunting are vague, even to her. At first she is little more than a mist floating through her flat. With time she builds strength and is able to rustle curtains and flip the pages of an open book, though, to her dismay, dislodging the book from a shelf and opening it herself proves to be too strenuous. With little factual evidence to go on, parsing the specifics of a haunting seems to be part of what Elspeth, and Niffenegger, is doing here - "I'm not exactly matter so I must be energy," Elspeth thinks after accidentally blowing out the twins' television. Literary works - Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, a number of Edgar Allan Poe's writings - provide the basis of Elspeth's lessons and are the clear foundation of Niffenegger's modern-day ghost story. Indeed, Her Fearful Symmetry contains much in common with the Gothic literature of the Victorian period, a genre that came to be characterized by cemeteries, castles and supernatural occurrences, classically combined with an element of romance. Here we have just that: the foreboding yet graceful presence of London's Highgate Cemetery, the beautiful yet confining walls of the flat, love lost, pined for, and found, and, in addition to the ghost of Elspeth, a set of twins who, pale-skinned with silvery hair, dressed identically in white, exact mirror images of each other - one of whom is plagued with the unusual condition of situs invertus, a reversal of the internal organs - possess their own element of ethereality.
So adroitly does Niffenegger emulate this period that it is a task for the reader to remember that the story is not happening in the 18th or 19th centuries, but in the 21st. Cell phones, Johnny Rotten references and Wilco T-shirts jump out as near anachronisms set against the backdrop of the grey foreignness of the London skies and gravestones. Instead, it is easy to become absorbed into the idea of Julia and Valentina's London as a sort of travel through space and time, a falling into a Wonderland that exists outside the realm of the real. The beauty of the story, though, is that however beyond reality the twins' new world seems to exist, they are beset with the ordeals of a very real pair of twenty-one-year-old girls living in our day. They have yet to discover what is it they want to do with their lives, having flitted from college to college and chosen to forgo education for the time being. Valentina, whom Julia has disdainfully nicknamed "the Mouse," grapples with her deep-seated desire to get out from under her elder twin's domineering influence. Julia, however contemptuously she treats her sister, is heartbroken at the mere possibility of losing Valentina's constant companionship. They are young women struggling with growing up, gaining their independence and defining their individuality. There could be nothing more real or modern than that.
Her Fearful Symmetry is, at once, all of these disparate elements combined. It is an inventive take on the ghost story, a neo-Victorian narrative combining the extraordinary with the everyday, kept fresh with just a few unexpected plot twists. It is a coming-of-age story, illustrating two girls staring into the chasm of adulthood. It is a cache of fantastically drawn characters - I would be remiss here if I did not mention Martin, the twins' upstairs neighbor whose Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder has kept him confined to his flat and pining for the wife who abandoned him for want of a freer existence, a living reflection to Elspeth's own entrapment. It is an ode and a declaration of love to authors and books of the past - while Elspeth's flat is filled with beautifully aged and rare reads, a result of her profession as a bookseller, Niffenegger is clearly tipping her hat to the likes of Jane Austen, H.G. Wells, Lewis Carroll and other such authors that came before her (her use of the verb "galumph," in particular, tickles me). It is a meditation on love and loss, life and death, and the unknown that waits for us beyond. It is wholly absorbing and it is a pleasure to read.
Still, what of this Wonderland? Is it the twins' new life in London or is it the afterlife to which Elspeth is delivered? It is the place to which we wish to escape or the place from which we desperately want to return? Is it the here and now or the future yet to come? Carroll's Alice never truly reveals the answer, nor do either set of twins here, nor does Niffenegger herself. That's the rub with Wonderlands - each person must decide for him- or herself exactly what that means and no one can rightly define what or where or when it is. But, every now and again we do get a magnificent story to help rekindle our imaginations.
Her Fearful Symmetry will be available for purchase on September 29. To learn more about this book and Niffenegger's work, please visit her website.