Elspeth and Edwina were identical twins, estranged for many years. When Elspeth dies in London, she leaves her flat to her sister’s, nieces – Julia and Veronica – who are also identical twins. However, there is a condition. The two girls must leave the USA and their mother behind, and in the flat for a year. After that, they can do what they want with it. The girls decide to take up the challenge – since seriously, how horrid could a rent-free year in London be? Especially if what they’ve inherited is a bright and sunny flat, situated near Highgate Cemetery. But, soon after they arrive, they begin to meet some unusual neighbors and then some strange things start to happen. This is Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry.
After The Time Traveler’s Wife was such a huge best-seller, everyone anxiously awaited Audrey Niffenegger’s second novel. This came with this semi-ghost story Her Fearful Symmetry. That it was a ghost story was no surprise. Her debut novel was clearly in the realm of magical realism – making something that is improbable (if not impossible) and making it sound possible. With her first novel, the conceit was getting her readers to believe a genetic anomaly could cause someone to time travel. And so we did. With her second outing, the magical bit of her realism has been substituted with the supernatural. This makes the conceit all the more tangible. Time travel is almost science fiction. Ghosts are in that gray area that lies somewhere between fantasy and belief. This is especially true when they are removed from the realm of religion. This is exactly what Niffenegger does here – by using the afterlife as a literary mechanism. This is also what makes her second book both problematic and fascinating – by taking extraordinary situations and inserting them into the lives of ordinary people.
Obviously, the fascinating part is investigating if ghosts really do exist, and if they can communicate with living beings. She also gets into the questions of the affects of mourning, and how the loss of someone sometimes makes us desire to still connect with someone who is dead. This is plausible. But Niffenegger goes further by investigating if spirits have some control on the living, taking it so far as to imply that, with the proper circumstances, ghosts might even be able to devise a way to be reincarnated. And here is where the problematic part of the story comes in. The question is, how much more – or less acceptable is this than the idea that a stray gene can force you to become a time traveler?
The best answer to that is to advise readers to suspend normal logic as they read. If they can do this, they’ll find a complex character study, which examines how our relationships are affected by our actions. Moreover, there is the fascinating side of how raw love, in its many different states, becomes that which keeps us among the living, even after death. Niffenegger’s story then becomes one that, despite the frightening aspects is also extremely touching. This is what draws the reader in, and makes it an addictive read.
The only drawback to Her Fearful Symmetry is an ending that feels banal compared to the rest of the work. Even so, Niffenegger doesn’t let it become corny and allows some questions to remain unanswered, with the ultimate fates of these characters left to the imagination of the readers. All told, despite some flaws, this deserves a strong four stars out of five, and good enough to make me anxious to read her next novel.
(Audrey Niffenegger’s third novel, “Raven Girl,” is due to be published on May 7, 2013)
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