No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, February 27, 2010

2010/18: Her Fearful Symmetry -- Audrey Niffenegger

She wanted to walk until she was exhausted enough to sleep. Instead she went into her office and looked out at the front garden in the moonlight. Let me go, she asked of whatever held her there. I want to die now, please; really die and be gone. She waited, but there was no response. Please, God, or whoever you are, please let me go. She looked out at the garden, up at the sky. Nothing happened. She understood then that no one was listening. Anything that happened to her now would be her own doing. (p.206)

The novel opens with the death of Elspeth, whose identical twin Edie is married to Jack. Elspeth, it turns out, has left her Highgate flat to Edie's daughters, Julia and Valentina, who are also identical twins -- mirror-image twins, in fact, Valentina left-handed, Julia right-handed, Valentina's heart on the right and reversed. They are intimately accustomed to one another, entirely codependent.

Elspeth, though dead, is not gone. She watches over her lover Robert, though he doesn't hear her yelling at him; watches the arrival of the twins, and their tentative reaching towards the other residents: Robert, who lives downstairs and spends most of his time in Highgate Cemetery, and Martin, who lives upstairs and hasn't left his flat for years. Valentina, it turns out, is rather more sensitive to Elspeth's presence than is Julia. And Valentina is drawn to Robert -- drawn away from Julia. Julia, meanwhile, finds herself trying to help Martin overcome his fear of the real world, and to reunite him with Marijke, his estranged wife who now lives in Amsterdam.

If The Time-Traveller's Wife was a literary novel with science-fiction tropes, this is a literary novel with horror (or ghost-story) tropes. Elspeth is a very credible ghost, with a reality that is independent of others' perceptions. She is determined, forceful and desperate; as trapped as any of the other characters, Valentina beginning to resent the forced intimacy with her twin, Martin terrified by the outside world, Robert lost and drifting without his lover. Everybody's on the cusp of sudden and violent change, and Elspeth's long-held secrets become a catalyst.

There are multiple layers of deception in this novel: the characters deceive one another and themselves, and the author deceives the reader in a way that reminds me of Iain Pears. It's a chillng and unsettling book that's evocative and precise about emotion, and isn't afraid to leaven the icy logic with humour. (Elspeth, watching TV over the twins' shoulders, develops an instant crush on David Tennant as the Doctor. And why not?) I'm keen to see which genre Niffenegger turns to for her next novel.

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