Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Her Fearful Symmetry: When a Setting Steals the Show

'What is more basic than the need to be known? It is the entirety of intimacy, the elixir of love, this knowing.'

Betting on Audrey Niffenegger's second novel was a gamble. Readers whose taste and judgment I admire both loved and loathed Her Fearful Symmetry. In the end, the pull of a Neo-Victorian ghost story set in and around a historical London cemetery was too strong for me to resist.

Unfortunately this gamble didn't pay off. Oh, I wanted so badly to like it, to love it even, to sing its praises to readers all around. I tried, I really tried, but Her Fearful Symmetry left me feeling cold and indifferent.

As seen in the author's wildly popular debut novel The Time Traveler's Wife, Niffenegger's writing has a mystical quality. It draws you in and almost makes you feel as though you're floating about the narrative, just as Elspeth's ghost flits around the London flat she's left to her twin nieces, and every once in a while I'd come across a phrase that stunned me (see above).

But a novel needs more than pretty prose to work as a whole. It needs compelling characters, and in this aspect Niffenegger failed to live up to her authorial potential. The Time Traveler's Wife had me rooting for its protagonists within moments of opening the pages. With all their strengths and flaws, I fell in love with Clare and Henry as quickly as they fell in love with each other. Full engagement with a single character in Her Fearful Symmetry eluded me.

Somewhere I heard the novel described as a testament to the enduring power of love. If by love one means supreme selfishness, deceit and possession, then yes, love abounds in the world of Her Fearful Symmetry. Every relationship, both familial and romantic, seemed twisted and warped to such an extent that it put me off the text as a whole. The majority of the characters chased after the travesty of intimacy. The semblance of love masked the dishonesty and secrecy that underpinned the narrative. That any character professed to have captured this intangible 'knowing' left me baffled. The so-called twists, which any observant reader will see coming a mile away, only enhanced my antipathy. All in all, Her Fearful Symmetry left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Highgate Cemetery is the saving grace in this novel. Established in 1839, the North London cemetery houses the graves of several notable figures: George Eliot, George Henry Lewes, Karl Marx, Ellen Wood, Stella Gibbons, and many members of the Rossetti and Dickens families, among others.

Niffenegger did her research on Highgate Cemetery -- she volunteered as a tour guide in preparation for the novel -- and it shows. For a place that houses the dead, Highgate is teeming with life. The vivid descriptions of this famous Victorian site, infused with a Gothic atmosphere, make Highgate Cemetery a character in its own right. Indeed, it's the star of the show. The sections in which the author takes the reader on a virtual tour, providing an informative and engrossing history of Highgate, were far and away my favorite bits of Her Fearful Symmetry. If only Niffenegger had given Highgate Cemetery its own story and cast aside these unsavory characters! Still, Highgate's presence made the writer's sophomore effort worth reading for me and were almost enough to make me enjoy the text as a whole.


Methinks I see a visit to Highgate Cemetery in my future, and I'm also keen to read up on its fascinating history. I'll be sure to stop by the next time I'm in London. It's wonderful to see so many work to preserve this site of Victorian cultural significance!


Ashley said...

Yes, given your review I believe I will be planning a trip to Highgate and NOT reading the book. :)

JoAnn said...

I enjoyed this well enough as I was reading, but the novel has had no lasting effect... other than a desire to tour Highgate Cemetery!

Diana said...

Ash: You're a wise woman! I'm glad the novel opened my eyes to this amazing place (about which I had previously heard but never knew much about). I'm curious about what literature is available on Highgate Cemetery. Hmm...I'll have to do some research. :)

Diana said...

JoAnn: I feel the same! I read Her Fearful Symmetry towards the beginning of the year and that's what's stuck with me. I almost didn't write about this text, but I wanted to point out the cemetery to other readers who might have an interest in that sort of thing (e.g., other Victorian freaks like me).

Charlotte said...

Oh interesting review - I forgot I had planned to read this so I'm going to pick it up now. I think I am drawn to it in the same way you were; ghosts and cemeteries, as well as Niffenegger's potential. Whilst I think I'll agree with what you've said about its downsides you've still kind of sold it to me on the basis of the Highgate trivia :)

Diana said...

Charlotte: Yes, everything about Highgate make the book worth reading for me. I hope you like it better than I did. Perhaps you'll be one of those readers who absolutely falls in love with this novel? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!