Book review: Her Fearful Symmetry

I feel a bit of a fraud when I title something as a ‘review’ because really what I’m writing is ‘what I thought about this book’ rather than an objective-ish account.  A bit more like the book reports that we wrote at the start of secondary school, except maybe with a little less recounting of the plot!

Anyway, I just finished ‘Her Fearful Symmetry‘ by Audrey Niffenegger and I want to write a bit about what I thought of it before I go read any reviews – I always feel like they start bleeding into my own opinions, even if I try to stay independent.

I was a little wary before starting ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ just because ‘The Time-Traveller’s Wife‘ made me cry so much at the end that I never want to read it again!  So after getting ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ out from the library I circled round it a few times before starting on a Saturday night when I knew I would be able to get completely drawn into it and it wouldn’t matter if I found anything upsetting (there’s a reason I don’t read fiction on trains any more).

The reason I’d picked it up from the library on impulse was that I was really fascinated with the premise – a pair of rather unworldly, ethereal 21-year-old mirror twins inherit a flat by Highgate Cemetery from an aunt they’d never met, and then some strange events start happening…   I am completely fascinated with stories about twins and have wondered about writing a novel about twins some day (although this book has left me totally intimidated!)    It turns out that there’s also another pair of twins whose story is central to the book – the aunt and the mother of the young twins.  Issues of togetherness and separation are completely key to the novel and are illustrated in both twin and non-twin characters.

I loved the depiction of the cemetery, which is pretty much a character in its own right, changing with the seasons and populated by all manner of people and animals, living and dead.   One of the major characters is a tour guide there and now I definitely want to take a tour next time I’m in London!  As a backdrop to the proceedings, it adds both depth and character.

I usually like the fiction I read to be pretty strictly realistic: I’m not a fan of magic realism.  One thing that I particularly liked about ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ was how Niffenegger wrote a highly ‘realistic’ and believable type of time travel, with all the detail set out in a very plausible fashion – it made you feel sure that if time travel existed, this is exactly how it could happen.  In ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ she does just the same thing for haunting, coming up with a remarkably believable scenario.

I admire her plotting tremendously in both books (I do wonder whether she’s one of these writers with a room full of detailed charts – surely she has to be).   Some of the plot twists in ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ are rather guessable – but maybe they are intended to be?  I don’t think it spoils the book.

However, there is one plot detail that I’m pretty confident could not happen in real life and jarred a bit – and few others that are probably pushing plausibility. I’m a bit frustrated that I can’t say what they are without spoilering!   It seems ridiculous that I’ll accept the existence of ghosts as realistic and then get hung up on mundane details, but they are an issue because they start to make you feel less immersed in the world of the book.

Even having said that – I found the book an utterly compelling read.  I started it last night, read till I couldn’t keep my eyes open and kept going as soon as I woke up this morning until I’d finished!  And I did cry at the end, but not nearly as badly as for ‘The Time-Traveller’s Wife’.  Definitely a novel that’s worth a look, for its writing, for its plot, for its fascinating characters and for its marvellous Gothic setting.

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