Review of Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

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If you read and enjoyed Niffenegger’s poignant take on time travel in her bestselling debut novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, you might well be interested in her second book. It is certainly a contrast. Instead of the intense, almost claustrophobic relationship between Claire and her time-travelling husband told from her viewpoint, this story is told in multiple POV through a range of arresting, unusual characters.

herfearfulsymmetryJulia and Valentina Poole are normal American teenagers – normal at least, for identical ‘mirror’ twins who have no interest in college or jobs or possibly anything outside their cosy suburban home. But everything changes when they receive notice that an aunt whom they didn’t know existed has died and left them her flat in an apartment block overlooking Highgate Cemetery in London. They feel that at last their own lives can begin – but have no idea that they’ve been summoned into a tangle of fraying lives, from the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives above them to their aunt’s mysterious and elusive lover who lives below them, and even to their aunt herself, who never got over her estrangement from the twins’ mother – and who can’t even seem to quite leave her flat…

Those of you who like high-octane non-stop action from page one aren’t going to find it here. Niffenegger copped a lot of criticism about the frenetic pace of The Time Traveler’s Wife and seems to have taken it to heart. This book initially proceeds with literary leisure as we are treated to extensive descriptions and a low-key start with Elspeth’s death and Robert’s mourning. Niffenegger has evidently spent a lot of time around Highgate Cemetery, a grandiose monument to death constructed by the Victorians at the height of that age’s gothic whimsy. Victorian families used to take walks and picnics amongst the headstones and statuary – a detail I picked up in the book. What Niffenegger does do, is completely capture the unique, eccentric charm of Highgate set within the buzz of London, giving us a cinematically sharp setting as events start to unfold. Because the pace picks up when the twins enter the story – and goes on steadily accelerating to the creepy, shiver-up-your spine climax that I didn’t see coming.

This well crafted book is layered with interesting observations on the themes of obsession, love and loss. Niffenegger handles her cast of extraordinary characters – Dickensian in their oddness – with deft skill that prevents them treacling into Victorian sentimentality or whimsy. There is certainly nothing whimsical about the shocking turn of events. I was sucked into Niffenegger’s world – and now, nearly a week and two books later, I still find myself thinking about the twins, Elspeth and Robert…

I generally steer away from horror for a solid reason – and this disturbing, ghostly tour de force has reminded me why, all over again.

9/10

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