Readers’ responses to Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger’s new novel, will depend, I suspect, on how they like their ghosts.
Those who prefer their apparitions straight up, poltergeist-style—banging about houses, turning off lights, writing coy communiqués into the dust of window sills, snuffing the life out of stray cats—will no doubt fall right in with Niffenegger’s tale of a woman who has not, it seems actually died of cancer in her hospital bed. Those whose relationships with the phantasmic tend toward the meta—metaphoric, metaphysical—may conclude that Niffenegger has come on a tad too strong in her rendering of Elspeth Noblin, the woman who will not die and who, in her spectral afterlife, wreaks havoc on those she purports to love.
In choosing to follow up her immensely popular The Time Traveler’s Wife with a modern-day haunt, Niffenegger has returned to a familiar theme: the impossible yearning bred of unbreachable distance. This is a book in which all the primary characters want what they cannot seem to have. Elspeth wants life. Robert, her lover, wants Elspeth. Elspeth’s two nieces, Valentina and Julia, are in desperate need of some kind of earthly purpose. Even a secondary character, the obsessive-compulsive Martin, longs for the wherewithal to leave the flat into which his illness has trapped him; if he can just find his way out the door, he will find his way back to the wife he dearly misses.
The setting for the story is London’s Highgate Cemetery and the apartment building that runs along its edge. It is at Highgate that Elspeth has been buried. Not long ago, she occupied the middle flat, between Robert’s space and Martin’s, in the nearby apartment house. In the months following her death, Robert, a cemetery tour guide and historian, spends his time in his lover’s abandoned rooms, imagining her near. Is that her, he wonders, making love to him? Has she touched a finger to his forehead? Have his hands gone cold because she’s grasped them? It’s silly stuff; Robert knows it is. But he cannot shake his suspicion.
When Elspeth’s nieces arrive from Chicago to move into their aunt’s former flat (she has bequeathed it to them; no one can imagine why), things begin to take a more radical turn. The girls are mirror twins, born of Elspeth’s twin sister, Edie, and since Edie and Elspeth hadn’t spoken since the twins’ birth, the girls had never met this aunt. They come to know her, at first, through the museum of her things—her shoes, her books, her clothing. But soon, it’s clear, Elspeth herself is up and about. She’s even speaking to them.
This would not be an Audrey Niffenegger book if the plot did not unfold and tangle at a rapid clip. Characters’ thoughts are, for the most part, tossed inside quick, italicized asides. Decisions are precipitous, sometimes incongruent. Consequences are outrageous. People are sorry, very sorry, for things that they might have seen coming. And once Elspeth has figured out how to communicate her desires, she speaks of them (well, to be proper, she writes of them) on a rather regular basis. Elspeth is a jealous ghost. She’s also a greedy one. She has a secret that she has been keeping, and it’s time, she thinks, to let it out.
Her Fearful Symmetry is at its best in its early pages, when Niffenegger gives herself room to present her cast of characters; there are some charming descriptions, particularly of these odd, wan mirror twins. The author’s love for and deep research into Highgate is also apparent, as when she writes of the cemetery "spread out in the moonlight like a soft grey hallucination, a stony wilderness of Victorian melancholy." Not a deep meditation, the novel requires its readers to thoroughly suspend their disbelief and to go along for the haunted ride.