By Adam Roche
Firstly, let’s forget that Audrey Niffenegger wrote ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’.
For the millions of us that have read the book, this may be a difficult thing to do, but it is a necessary step you’ll have to take, at least to begin with. For while ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ is by the same author that gave us one of the greatest books of our time, it is a very different story. One that many of you will not be expecting.
The main crux of the story rests with Julia and Valentina Poole, two American identical mirror-image twins in their early twenties, who are bequeathed an apartment in London overlooking Highgate Cemetery by their aunt, Elspeth, who was herself the identical twin of their mother, Edie. Elspeth and Edie have not had contact for more than two decades, and as a result, the twins have never met their mysterious benefactor.
Naturally delighted, and yearning for adventure, they readily accept the bequest, even though it comes with a couple of strange conditions, the main being that their mother and father are not to set foot in the apartment. They arrive, and soon spend their time becoming accustomed to their new home, and indeed their new country and surroundings.
The apartment is on the first floor. Underneath them lives Robert, a thirtysomething writer, and guide at the cemetery who was the lover of Elspeth, and who has not yet come to terms with her death. Above them lives Martin, an obsessive compulsive crossword compiler, whose Dutch wife, Marijke, has recently returned to her home country, unable to continue living with her husband’s ever deteriorating condition. And creeping into their home comes The Little Kitten Of Death, a snow-white feline visitor from nowhere who is soon adopted by the twins as a pet albeit without it’s consent.
And into this wild blend, another companion enters. Elspeth herself, who finds herself quietly haunting the twins’ apartment, observing them for the first time as they make their new lives, and unobtrusively occupying the locked desk drawer of the desk in her old office.
And here, you may be thinking that such a story could only come from a drunkard or a desperate madman, but such is the gift of storytelling that Niffenegger possesses that it is only when we tell another soul about this set-up that it sounds bizarre.
For while this story is fantastic in it’s ambitions and direction, it is told with such subtlety and acute detail that it springs instantly to life, as naturally as if we were an occupant of the eccentric household, as if we were ourselves haunting the rooms of the house.
It is difficult for a while to see the direction in which the story is moving, and yet when the pieces do start to come together, when the themes of the book do begin to emerge, it is with a realization that we have once again fallen for the charms of a master storyteller. What Niffenegger has crafted here is a haunting, poignant story about love, death, identity and longing. Does this sound familiar?
And so onward we move, as the cemetery itself begins to play a bigger part, the relationships begin to splinter and fray, as Elspeth begins to assume control of her new condition, and as family secrets long-buried are brought to the surface with shocking resonance. And resonance will play a part in your opinion of it. Indeed, this is a story which doesn’t finish until the last sentence, whereupon you may then, and only then, exhale and begin to understand what it is you’ve just read. Where the meanings of events and motives will only become clear when the entirety of it is allowed to swim around your mind for a while.
And so to the question that will no doubt have plagued you throughout this review. How does it compare to ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’?
For starters, the story is nothing like ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’. Also, it is written in an omniscient point-of-view, which while not unusual in itself, did take me a little while to adjust to. However, this is a story that could not have credibly been told from one or even two people’s point of view, so this is not a criticism.
Where it does compare, is in it’s inert quirkiness, the fact that this is a story about seemingly normal people with highly unusual problems. This seems to be a unique selling point with Audrey Niffenegger, namely her ability to take the normal, sometimes even the mundane, and inject a bizarre variable that lifts the story into a completely different stratosphere. With ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ that variable was time travel. With ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ that variable is the afterlife. We receive no detailed explanations, no scientific evidence of how it works, or why. It just is.
Do they sit alongside each other? The simple answer is yes. The world of Julia and Valentina Poole is without a doubt the same world inhabited by Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire. It is an alternate reality, our world with a kink. It is a fractured mirror of everything we see around us.
In short, ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ is yet another masterpiece from Audrey Niffenegger, a continuation of the themes she so obviously adores. A story so well crafted and executed that whilst it’s singular components may be utterly fantastic in themselves, it is written with such power and spirit that we are swept along completely until it’s devastating, haunting last breath.
Her Fearful Symmetry is published by Jonathan Cape, and is released on October 1st, 2009
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