Her Fearful Symmetry

I have raced through Audrey Niffenegger’s second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, and feel compelled to write a quick review of it. I’ve seen some glowing reviews of it, but I’m not sure I want to be quite so glowing; in fact, I wasn’t as taken with her first novel, The Time Traveller’s Wife, as most other reviewers (you can read my review of that here).

Niffenegger seems to be something of a rising literary star, apparently known for her unusual prose style and inventive plots. The plots are inventive, I’ll give her that; and, though perhaps a little convoluted, also well-constructed. The prose is middle-of-the-road, generally. I think my issue with Niffenegger’s work is that it’s often reviewed as if it’s proper literary fiction, like, for example, A.S. Byatt, Hilary Mantell or Sarah Waters. Well, as far as I can remember, Niffenegger’s novels haven’t been up for a Booker Prize yet, and nor should they be; they’re good, but they’re missing something.

All this sounds pretty negative, and that’s not fair: I enjoyed Her Fearful Symmetry. I really wanted to know what happened, and couldn’t put it down at one point. I recommend it as a book to absorb you, to while away hours in another world, but don’t expect it to make you think, to fill you with joy or horror, or to have a lasting effect. It’s not that kind of book, in my opinion. It tells the story of Elspeth, long-separated from her twin Edie, who dies and leaves her flat beside Highgate Cemetery to Edie’s twin daughters, Julia and Valentina. They move from America to London to live in the flat, becoming friends with Elspeth’s lover Robert and OCD neighbour Martin, and learning about their aunt (and the Little Kitten of Death, who particularly appealed to me).

There are ghosts, twists in the plot, relationships and histories to be untangled as the novel develops, and generally these are believable and handled well. But it seems as though Niffenegger is still developing as a novelist, because some of the issues and relationships – themes, even – of the novel seem to stop short of their potential; the identity and separation issues of twin relationships are not sufficiently fleshed out, which is a shame as there could have been a rich vein of interest there. The book jacket tells me that the book has a theme of identity, which is true: the twins who look so similar but are so different; the changing of identity after death; the perceived identity of a loved one. But none of these are explored fully enough to provide a truly satisfying novel.

What the novel does do well is its depiction of Highgate Cemetery, the subject of Robert’s thesis and the spiritual beginning and ending of the story. Highgate features almost as a character, described lovingly and evoked in its crumbling and Victorian grandeur. If nothing else, the novel should do something for Highgate’s tourism.

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