Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetryby Audrey Niffenegger

I have read this novel, twice – a few years apart – and loved it the first time, but less so the second. I can only assume I was at a different place in my life on each reading, seeing it from a different perspective: ergo, altered interpretation.

The story itself concerns Elspeth Noblin who dies, prematurely, bequeathing her London flat to her twin nieces whom she has seen once, as babies, before they returned to the U.S. with their mother, Elspeth’s twin.

One of the conditions of inheritance is that they should live in the house for a period of twelve months, before they become entitled to sell the property. This means the immature twins, Julia and Valentina, are forced to leave behind the cosseted existence with their parents, and venture forth to an unknown country to live in a creepy Victorian house, overlooking Highgate Cemetery.

It is only then they discover the considerable wealth that is due to them, and begin to learn about the aunt, previously shrouded in mystery, that they never knew.

Reconnecting with Elspeth’s lover, Robert, who resides in the same building, the twins reluctantly begin to dabble in the world of spiritualism using Highgate Cemetery – an entity in itself – as a backdrop for their shenanigans.

With the added bonus of a neighbour with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder trying to win back the love of his estranged Dutch wife, we are introduced to a world where not everything is as it seems. The subsequent revelations set off a chain of events from which all concerned will never recover.

Niffenegger has a real talent for imagining the supernatural, and writing about it in such a way so as not to confuse the reader: who could forget the outstanding The Time Traveller’s Wife?

However, as an ex-nurse, I found the post-mortem processes she adopts to progress the narrative a little too convenient and, for me, inconceivable. An author may have to exercise a degree of artistic licence, but it still has to be credible for the reader.

Having said that I would still recommend this as a fascinating read about a controversial subject matter, and Highgate Cemetery now seems even more compelling thanks to this, and Tracy Chevalier’s haunting descriptions in Falling Angels. It is certainly on my list of must-see places before I die.

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