Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (4/5)

The back says: Audrey Niffenegger’s spectacularly compelling second novel opens with a letter that alters the fate of every character. Julia and Valentina Poole are semi-normal American twenty-year-olds with seemingly little interest in college or finding jobs. Their attachment to one another is intense. One morning the mailman delivers a thick envelope to their house in the suburbs of Chicago. From a London solicitor, the enclosed letter informs Valentina and Julia that their English aunt Elspeth Noblin, whom they never knew, has died of cancer and left them her London apartment. There are two conditions to this inheritance: that they live in it for a year before they sell it and that their parents not enter it. Julia and Valentina are twins. So were the estranged Elspeth and Edie, their mother.

The girls move to Elspeth’s flat, which borders the vast and ornate Highgate Cemetery, where Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Radclyffe Hall, Stella Gibbons and Karl Marx are buried. Julie and Valentina come to know the living residents of their building. There is Martin, a brilliant and charming crossword-puzzle setter suffering from crippling obsessive compulsive disorder; Marijke, martins devoted but trapped wife; and Robert, Elspeth’s elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. As the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt’s neighbours, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including – perhaps – their aunt.

I say: I picked this up because I loved The Time Traveller’s Wife, also by Niffenegger, because I wasn't too interested in the story. Maybe that’s the reason it took me a while to get into the novel. The narrative kept switching between the twins, Robert, Martin and Marijke and I understood that the reason we were following them all was because they all lived in the same house and their lives intertwined, but in the beginning it all felt a bit forced, to be honest.

Or perhaps I should say that it took a while to get all the introductions done.

Up until the twins moved into the house it was a tad mundane, but then came the twist – that I was waiting for, because I refused to believe that the person who wrote The Time Traveller’s Wife would just settle for a novel about a house. I’m not going to reveal the twist – if it’s even a twist (maybe it’s just in my head) – but I’m really appreciative of the way Niffenegger handled it because it could easily have turned the entire book into a farce. It was delicately handled in the beginning and even quite beautiful at times, but as the story progressed it became more and more sinister.

In the most disturbing of ways.

I sort of saw the beginning of the end coming but didn’t want to believe it, so when it did happen I was so disappointed. Not in the book, mind you, but in the characters. However, Niffenegger tied it all up nice and neatly (more or less) with a nice dose of poetic justice.

What I didn’t like about this novel was probably the twins and Robert; I just couldn’t get my head around either one of them. They simply didn’t seem believable to me – well maybe Valentina at times – so that was a huge hindrance. On the other hand, I do like Niffenegger’s writing, which boarders on poetic at times, and I simply adored Martin. I was also really intrigued by the information about Highgate Cemetery – Niffenegger is a visual artist and guide there, so that’s probably why she managed to create such an intimate atmosphere around it (aside: I love cemeteries and visit them every now and then to look at headstones and such).

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