Audrey Niffenegger – Her Fearful Symmetry

‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ is a ghost story. It is set in and around Highgate Cemetary in London and the story evolves around two sets of twins, Edie and Elspeth Noblin and Julia and Valentina Poole. The younger set, Julia and Valentina, are the daughters of Edie. Edie and Elspeth have not seen each other for twenty years, Edie lives with her husband and daughters in Chicago, Elspeth lives in London. It is not clear why they have not seen each other for such a long time. When the book starts, Elspeth passes away and leaves her London property to her nieces, who will turn twenty-one in a few months. They are to live in her flat for one year, without their parents. The flat faces London’s Highgate Cemetary, where their aunt Elspeth has been buried.

I don’t want to give away anything further of the plot, since that is one of this novel’s accomplishments. This truly is a modern ghost story and I found the plot very cleverly constructed and very believable. Given the world Audrey Niffenegger created, the events that occur are genuine and do not require any stretch of imagination. I used to have this idea that ghost stories’ main purpose was to frighten people, but that is not the point of this novel. The ghosts are functional, they help unfold the themes of this novel.

After I have given this work some thought, I have found that for me this novel is about identity and especially about identity in regards to bonds with other people. Twins have a natural and very intimate bond from the day they are born. At several points there are hints that the strong bond between Edie and Elspeth caused some big problems. Or, as Martin, Julia and Valentina’s upstairs neighbour, says:

‘Elspeth thought that there was a limit to how far the twin relationship should go, in terms of each person giving up their own individuality. She felt that she and your mother had exceeded that boundary.’

Julia and Valentina, at 21 years of age, struggle with exactly this issue. Although they look a lot alike, their personalities are very different, yet they find it hard to loosen the bond and start doing individual things.

This bond between twins is contrasted with the bond between lovers, or a married couple. At several points in the book, the bond between Julia and Valentina is compared to that of lovers, or a married couple. Martin says the following in a conversation with Julia

‘Your’re like an old married couple, you and Valentina. You have everything divvied up, all the talents and the chores.’

There are a couple of other characters that don’t directly contribute to the main ghost-story plot and at first I wondered what their function was. But I think they are there to portray the bonds between lovers or a married couple. Specifically, I am speaking of Martin and Marijke, the upstairs neighbours and of the Bateses, an elderly couple who are in charge of the volunteer guides at the cemetery. Marijke has left her husband because she could no longer live with his mental illness, yet their bond continues. Martin says the following when Julia asks him what it is like to be in love with someone

‘‘It feels as though part of my self has detached and gone to Amsterdam, where it – she – is waiting for me. Do you know about phantom-limb syndrome?’ Julia nodded. (…) Julia thought, He feels for his wife what I feel about Valentina. This frightened her.’

I could go on and on with examples about this theme, there are many more lines that I marked. In the first part of the book, mourning and loss are also very much present. There’s Robert, Elspeth’s lover, mourning her loss and those scenes are very touching. But what really moved me is the scene where Marijke leaves Martin. She is happy to be free from the influence of his mental illness, but on the other hand she leaves part of herself with him and she knows this. That was very moving and caused me some tears.

To sum it up, I definitely recommend this. The plot is great, it can be really moving and there is plenty to think about afterwards. I focused here on one theme, but I think there are more ideas in this novel, so it is definitely suitable for a re-read in a couple of years. Also, give yourself a window where you have chunks of time to devote to it, because for me it was very hard to put it down.

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