‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ by Audrey Niffenegger, London, Vintage Books, 2010, 482 pages, £7.99
We fell in love with The Time Traveler’s Wife because it was unusual, unfathomable and wholly engrossing. In this follow-up, Niffenegger continues her perusal of the supernatural and the weird, swapping time-travel romance for ghostly familial relations.
Niffenegger entwines two stories of two sets of twins, the first Elspeth and Edie, followed by the next generation Valentina and Julia. Oddly, all four could be considered the protagonists of the novel, yet strangely, they are the characters you learn the least about, as Niffenegger maintains a sense of mystery throughout.
What starts off as a story about inheritance soon takes a twisted turn into the world of the grotesque. When Elspeth dies she leaves her fortune and her flat to her estranged sister’s twin daughters. Julia and Valentina arrive in London to a flat on the outskirts of Highgate Cemetery, where Elspeth is interred; however much to everyone’s surprise Elspeth still happens to reside in the flat with them in a ghostly form. What follows is a series of strange séance style communications where Elspeth builds a relationship with the twins.
Despite the strangeness of the situation, the plot fails to arouse the same intrigue as Niffenegger’s first novel. Part of the reason for this is because we’ve been reading ghost stories since the 19th century, so the concept is nothing new. Although, while Dickens, James, and Poe all experimented with the notion of ghosts, two centuries later, their novels still manage to evoke a sense of displacement – something which Her Fearful Symmetry never quite achieves. Ghost stories are designed to spook and unnerve you, yet in Niffenegger’s novel, the inclusion of ghosts does not surprise the reader, and instead it all feels like an oddly natural occurrence. Although Niffenegger does her best to give it a brand new twist and create a sense of shock, it somehow never reaches the eerily affecting levels of her 19th Century counterparts.
No matter how hard Niffenegger tries to give her story an edge, throwing in twists and turns with murders and resurrection attempts, the story still fails to lift. In some ways, the problem is that she is trying too hard. When the plot gives way to resurrections as Elspeth begins to play with the extraction of living souls, you can’t help but scoff in disbelief and hunt for all the plot flaws – something that never occurred in The Time Traveler’s Wife, where the reader’s faith in the story was unquestionable.
Although it feels wrong to keep comparing Her Fearful Symmetry to Nifenegger’s stunning debut, you cannot help but feel more than a little disappointed when it fails to come close to her earlier standards. Niffenegger is without a doubt a talented writer, and she does make you want to read on and finish the story, all the while expectant of something more, but unfortunately even the ending feels abrupt. On a whole the novel falls short of sparkle, leaving you bereft of the same reading pleasure as her debut.
Yes Her Fearful Symmetry is unusual, and unfathomable, but perhaps too much so, it causes the reader to question its plausibility and hence lacks the wholly engrossing quality that her readers so desired more of.