I have never gone so long without posting before and I’m a little ashamed about how long it’s been. While I’ve been away In my good books… turned two years old. Time really has flown by. Believe it or not, despite my long absence, I have logged on to view my stats almost daily and have not discarded In my good books… as much as it might seem. I have been reading Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry and I have been thinking about what I will say about it.
It has taken me an extremely long time to read this book, and I have to confess that I have erred from my intentions and dallied with other books in the meantime. Along with the rest of the world, it would seem, I read Niffenegger’s bestseller The Time Traveller’s Wife several years ago and loved it. Hence, when I saw Her Fearful Symmetry, I bought it immediately. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, I suppose I was looking forward to the same level of gripping narrative and unpredictable plot lines that I’d found in The Time Traveller’s Wife. I’m not entirely sure whether or not I found them. Her Fearful Symmetry certainly contains a lot of twists and turns as far as the narrative is concerned, although sadly, for me, I did tend to see them coming. I won’t spoil the plot for any potential readers out there, but suffice to say that there are two giant plot twists in this book, the first I spotted just a few pages in and the second suddenly dawned on me only a few pages before Niffenegger herself revealed the truth.
Her Fearful Symmetry is something of a Victoriana-ophile of a novel. Niffenegger saturates the novel with Victorian overtones. Firstly, there is the looming presence of Highgate Cemetery which seems to almost smother the characters’ lives like a damp mist. Secondly, there is the novel’s fixation with twins and the way they are wired; I have to say Niffenegger’s narrative very much reminded me of the way in which the Victorians would happily exhibit people such as Valentina and Julia (one of the sets of identical twins in the story) like ‘freaks of nature’ to be gawped at for entertainment.
While reading this book I often found myself feeling as though Niffenegger was trying too hard. Trying to throw hip and cool ingredients into her recipe for a ‘hip and cool 21st Century novel’. Graveyards, identical twins, Victorian London, family secrets, chronic OCD, death, oh and let’s chuck in the odd ghost and Ouija board to make things really cool. Perhaps I’m being a little too catty? These ingredients certainly do make Her Fearful Symmetry an intriguing book to read, but, as I said, I couldn’t help feeling that the ingredients were a little clumsily added. The Time Traveller’s Wife is a lovingly and carefully plotted book that keeps you hanging off every line. I think Her Fearful Symmetry tries to be the same thing and doesn’t succeed with the same ease and grace.
The novel’s plot is an interesting one. It explores that strange connectivity between identical twins. Families often seem close and weird to those outside them, but a family with two generations of identical twins makes for an even closer and even weirder mesh. Elspeth and Edie are Niffenegger’s first generation of identical twins and they are followed by the next generation: Valentina and Julia. The book explores how time can often go full circle where families are concerned, some narratives are just set to repeat themselves over and over again.
The cover of my edition quotes the Scotsman saying, “dark and delicious”. Her Fearful Symmetry certainly has darkness within its pages, in fact, I would go so far as to question if there is enough light. Without a more even balance of light and shade the novel suffers from an overtly morbid ambience. Right from the first couple of chapters the dark overtones of the novel intimate to the reader that this story can only go one way. It’s a conscientiously dark novel, and as I have already said, I feel that this darkness is crafted clumsily and far too obviously. For a modern novel to be truly chilling, I think there should be a little more of the 21st century in there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Niffenegger should have dumped her gloriously gothic setting or refrained from her Victoriana, I’m just saying that in addition to this, I feel there could have been a little more of modern life in there. Sure, she throws in the odd reference to the Tesco metro down the road and Valentina and Julia take their trips on the London Underground, but I don’t think there is enough of contemporary London and contemporary life in there to flesh out the story and make it completely legitimate.
I think I would recommend Her Fearful Symmetry, it’s never going to become one of my all-time favourites like The Time Traveller’s Wife, but it’s very readable and entertaining. It’s a weird story, so weird perhaps that it’s hard to relate to it in terms of your own life, but it raises questions and presents its own answers – whether you think they’re credible or not is up to you. The bottom line is this…Her Fearful Symmetry is a 21st century paperback ghost story – the natural inheritor of its Victorian hardback ancestors. It would seem, as in life, so too in literature…some things just have to go full circle.
I move on to Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks. I attempted to read this book when I was a teenager and never got very far…I’m hoping that a gap of well over ten years will make all the difference.