Her Fearful Symmetry
Welcome to the "difficult second novel", when you've had a seriously massive hit with your first real novel, 'The Time Travelers Wife' (note intended for cave dwellers and well, time travellers) where on earth do you go?
It's tough as the weight of expectation is upon Niffenegger, and I expect many people picked up this book in the hopes of a new Time Travelers Wife, and were sorely disappointed. Not so me, if it had been a story with a similar feel to the former, I would have felt the author had just been and churned it out, and thought her initial success was a fluke and she lacked talent and imagination. This new novel proves she has both those qualities.
For me, though I will not have the same affection for it as I do its predecessor it is neither a greater nor a lesser book, it is more a shift sideways.
The novel has three strands to it, I suppose. The first is a study of the complex nature of the relationship of twins, particularly identical twins, and how that relationship can be at once joyful and suffocating. It focuses on two sets of twins, Edie and Elspeth Noblin and Edie's daughters Julia & Valentina Poole, who are similar in their problems yet different too.
The novel begins with the words 'The End', Elspeth's end, her death, and the novel begins from there, which reminded me of a line from a TS Eliot poem 'in my end is my beginning', because Elspeth's death is the catalyst of the first chain of events.
Elspeth leaves her estate to her nieces, who she has never met and who are barely aware of her existence. It is clear that at some point in the past, something happened between Edie and Elspeth, their relationship irretrievably broke down and despite being twins, they never saw one another again.
Julia and Valentina's relationship is overly interwoven, with Julia controlling what choices they make as a duo never as individuals, and, Valentina fragile and timid, unable to strike out alone.
The second strand of the book is three interlocking love stories. The first is Elspeth and her lover Robert, their tale being told partly through Robert's memories, and partly by Elspeth herself. The second is Martin and Marijke, their upstairs neighbours, which I wondered if it was included solely for light relief from the rest of the novel, and the third is Robert and Valentina, after Robert becomes drawn to her following Elspeth's death.
The third strand is what gives the novel it's uniqueness, it's a ghost story as well as a love story, Elspeth's ghost is trapped in her flat, and with the Highgate Cemetary in London serving as the novels backdrop, there is a clear attempt to add Gothic flair to the novel, which sometimes succeeds.
The novel is in so many ways about death, the death of relationships, the feeling that you are dead inside, the idea of being alive but not really living, and death and the afterlife itself, but it's still a very alive book.
The final third of the book brings with it two almighty twists, one of which there are earlier hints of and the other which shocks, at least it didn't occur to me personally that it was coming, and so that added to the novel's enjoyment for me, despite a more than passing nod to 'Beloved' by Toni Morrison.
I probably will never read this book again, but I would recommend it, just don't come looking for a Henry DeTamble and a Clare Abshire, you won't find them here. 8/10