Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

by Alison Stedman
Published by Jonathan Cape, 2009.

London’s Highgate Cemetery, created by the Victorians and restored by the modern-day Friends of Highgate Cemetery, is a fascinating place, a strange mix of romance and pragmatism, of hyperbole (if Karl Marx’s enormous sculpted head is anything to go by) and delicacy (small run-down graves vanishing into a little wilderness). It was thrilling news for this reviewer that a novel had been written set around the cemetery, and it was not difficult to enjoy seeing in print familiar spots within the cemetery, and familiar places around London.

Audrey Niffenegger’s latest novel is based around the inhabitants, both living and dead, of a small collection of apartments next door to Highgate Cemetery. Elspeth dies, leaving behind her neighbour and lover, Robert, and for reasons of her own leaves her property to her two American nieces, Julia and Valentina, on the condition that they must live in her flat for a year before they sell it. Julia and Valentina are twins, mirror image twins, who have always done everything together and have never done anything particularly significant. Coming to London, without their parents, new options open up for them, and Valentina experiences love for the first time. They begin to be pulled apart. It doesn’t help when it becomes clear that Elspeth never left her flat – is unable to leave her flat – and is becoming stronger slowly, learning how to be a ghost. As the young women learn to communicate with Elspeth, they chip away at mysteries of the past, and slowly their relationship is eroded. In desperation, Valentina turns to Elspeth, little understanding what exactly is going to happen to her.

There are a few imaginative moments in the novel which will maintain Niffenegger’s reputation as a creative author. I particularly liked the idea of the twins’ kitten playing with a ghost, and the ominous discovery that is made, through the kitten’s death, about the powers of a ghost. Unfortunately, though, apart from this, there was not much about this ghost story that seemed particularly fresh or original. I expected Niffenegger to redefine ghostliness, in a sense, just as she redefined time travel in The Time Traveler's Wife, but not much stood out to me as particularly new. Likewise, there are moments that are painfully familiar devices of any unremarkable romance novel, such as the moment when Valentina, meeting Robert, reassures him:

“It’s okay,” she said. He felt, without being able to express it to himself, that something lost had been restored to him.
“Thank you,” he replied. He said it quietly but with such intensity that Valentina fell in love with him, though she had no name for the feeling and nothing to compare it to.


There are several points in the novel where Niffenegger jumps over obstacles in her plot without seeming to care that this is too easy or things should be more complicated. When Julia wants to slip their severely obsessive-compulsive neighbour Martin his medicine without his knowledge, she decides to go to a doctor and pretend to have a mental illness, in order to obtain the right drugs. It seems to most of us that this would be no mean feat, requiring some explanation, but for Niffenegger, it does not. It was much more complicated than she had anticipated, but Julia did eventually manage to get a prescription for Anafranil. This sort of writing, heedless of realism although Niffenegger has placed her characters in a realistic world, simply comes across as laziness.

And the unrealism of the story just gets worse. Funnily enough, the fact that the story is about a ghost does not stretch belief as much as some of the things Niffenegger makes her living characters do. The whole dramatic climax of the story is based, fatally, around a decision of Valentina’s that seems simply uncharacteristic of what we have seen of her, and unsubstantiated by what has gone before. The unfolding of her choice and its consequences is skilfully done, and the twist is extremely effective, but I did not believe it. By the time the situation had unravelled, I was angry at all the characters, except perhaps Martin, who is a very likeable character, but who is on the sidelines. Worse than dislike, I felt no sympathy for those at the centre of the plot at all, and cared very little about what became of them.

For these reasons, I found Her Fearful Symmetry extremely disappointing, and, despite the well-chosen setting, the novel’s weaknesses in its characters and plot make it unlikely to bring Audrey Niffenegger as much critical praise as might be expected.
Alison Stedman is a senior editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2010, Alison Stedman