Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I hated The Time Traveller’s Wife so only took this off the library shelf to find out whether I would hate this too.  It was a nice surprise to discover that it’s so good, it could have been written by a different author altogether!  The characters are more likable, the setting interesting, and the outcome suitably disturbing.  The writing is also more controlled, with the author herself intruding less, and the pace thus more gripping (I found TTTW immensely dull).

There are two sets of twins in this book:  at the beginning, one of them, Elspeth, dies, leaving to her twin nieces all her money and her flat in Highgate.  Below the flat lives her lover, while above resides a neighbour suffering from OCD.  The nieces, Julia and Valentina, are as strange as their surroundings, with Julia, the older twin, smothering her younger, weaker sibling, to the point of stagnation.  Elspeth, though dead, doesn’t leave the story, remaining behind as a ghost trapped in her flat, gaining strength just as Valentina tries to regain hers.

Best of all are the descriptions of Highgate and the cemeteries, a part of London I know so well that it made my heart ache that I no longer live there.  The dark drip of Swain’s Lane, the magnetic pull of the overgrown graveyards, the flats in such a prime location, overlooking the tangled woods in which the graves lie…all these are an ideal backdrop for the ghostly girls, the ghost herself, and Robert, her lover, unable to stop mourning for her.  I liked that he worked as a volunteer at the cemeteries, that he was working on an endless PhD about the occupants, that he loved walking through the trees and graves.  I would have liked a little more realism about Highgate – the twins explore London in a perfunctory way but never explore Highgate itself, never discover that Hampstead Heath is barely 10 minutes from their front door, never walk on the Holly Lodge Estate, just around the corner, never admire the view from Waterlow Park, so high on Highgate Hill you can see all the way to the City.

The story is essentially about escape, the desperation for freedom neatly wrapped up in Martin, the upstairs neighbour, who manages to overcome his debilitating OCD to leave his flat.  The relationship between him and Julia is believable, as is the sexual attraction between Valentina and Robert with its disastrous outcome.  All the characters are entrancing and yet, halfway through, something goes horribly wrong – it was the death of the kitten that did it for me.  I can’t stand to see animals (especially kittens!) hurt or maimed in artistic endeavours and it seemed somehow unnecessarily cruel.

This death segued into a rather dubious ending. I could see it coming, was horrified at Valentina’s plans and then, when they went so badly awry, wasn’t sure if she got the happy ending she deserved.  Of all the characters, she was the most sympathetic and you rather wish she could have had the life she wanted.  I realised finally that the book was striving to be about the supernatural, about ghosts – hence the cemetery setting – but somehow it didn’t quite make it.  It wasn’t weird enough.  By taking a risk with the story, it wasn’t great enough to work.

The dissatisfying ending aside, it’s a good story but probably won’t thrill readers who actually did like TTTW.

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About susannahjbell

I am a writer of science fiction and other strange and surreal works. I mostly write novels and the occasional novelette. My published works include A Doorway into Ultra, the Fleet Quintet and the Exodus Sequence. I live in London in an attic flat but really want to live in a tree. I wanted to be an astrophysicist but would settle for an alien abduction. I write because I don’t know what to read.
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