Previously read by same author: The Time Traveler’s Wife
As she used and refined elements of time travel mythology to create The Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffeneger uses the ghost story as a means of telling a human story of relationships, identity, and loss. The characters of this story are trapped in some way – literally in some cases – but mostly trapped in relationships or trapped in their own past. Elspeth, the ghost of the story, is trapped in her former apartment near Highgate Cemetery in London. The gist of the novel is that Elspeth wills the apartment to her twin nieces whom she’s not seen since their infancy on the condition that the twins reside in the apartment for one year before selling and that they not allow her sister Edie (also a twin) to enter the apartment. The tightly connected sisters Julia and Valentina start to see their relationship erode under Elspeth’s ghostly watch as well as befriending their neighbors Robert (Elspeth’s grieving life partner) and Martin (a man so overcome by OCD that he cannot leave his house).
Halfway through this book I thought this was a brilliant novel balancing the intertwining tales of these five characters with the mystery of Elspeth’s afterlife. And then a twist in the story* breaks the narrative tension and makes the novel more pedestrian, in my opinion. Another twist** pushes the boundaries of the absurd and really broke the suspension of disbelief for me. A revelation late in the novel*** and the conclusion† are utterly predictable and disappointing (see footnotes for spoilers). Ultimately, Her Fearful Symmetry is entertaining enough but fails to deliver on its strong start. I think Niffeneger could’ve done much better with a promising premise.
As a side note, the parts about Highgate Cemetery are really fascinating. I find it interesting both because I live near an historic cemetery and because of the insights into the lives and motivations of preservationists and tour guides.
Recommended books: Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.
* Elspeth learns to communicate with Valentina, Julia, and Robert through Ouija boards and controlling their hands to write notes.
** Elspeth learns to tear out the souls of living beings and then place them back in their presumably dead bodies.
*** Elspeth is the twins’ real mother.
† Elspeth removes Valentina’s soul but puts herself into Valentina’s body.