Sunday, 11 December 2011

Her Fearful Symmetry

'Her Fearful Symmetry' by Audrey Niffenegger.
This book was always going to be a disappointment to me considering how much I loved 'The Time Travellers Wife'. It is described as a ghost story, but I think it is just a story with ghosts in it, because the ghost is neither particularly sad nor malevolent. It would have been a better story of she had been. Coming from a family with lots of twins I might have found it interesting but the whole identical twin thing was overdone and vaguely annoying. I am not sure that that level of intensity between two people would be real, and certainly not healthy, so using the device at the centre of the story made it feel rather contrived.

Anyway, the story: Elspeth and Edie are twins who have been separated by a rift over a man (who is utterly irrelevant to the story), and Elspeth dies and leaves her estate to Edie's twin girls, Valentina and Julia. Julia is domineering and Valentina is just weak and this is the basis for their relationship. They come to London to live in Elspeth's flat and spend their time mindlessly pottering around shops and tourist sites and eating convenience food. They are not really interesting, they are there to be a set of slightly creepy twins. Then we have the ghost of Elspeth who is floating round the flat trying to get their attention, which she eventually does. At the moment where she and Valentina are playing with the kitten and she accidentally snatches it's soul I knew exactly where the story was headed. On reflection maybe it is a ghost story, because it is her presence that directs the course of the plot and bring the tragedy. Without the ghost of Elspeth the girls cold have developed their new life into something else. Valentina could have broken away from her sister, Julia could have fallen for Theo, Robert could have actually got over his mourning and moved on.
Then there is the whole Highgate Cemetery thing, which mainly just screams 'oh, look I've done a lot of research for this book' and was not at all creepy or atmospheric. I liked Martin, the guy upstairs with really bad OCD, he was real and believable and very sympathetic, though, again, his recovery was a little too dramatic to be credible. I liked Robert, Elspeth's lover and downstairs neighbour, who volunteers at the cemetery doing tours and is writing a thesis on the history of the place. The whole book was set up to be very claustrophobic, all taking place inside this block of three flats, that overlook the cemetery, and all of the people have not much reason to go anywhere: Martin works from home and can't go out anyway, Robert has a private extorted income from being the unacknowledged child of a senior politician, and the twins have money from Elspeth and can please themselves, so no one has to go out to work and they all spend far too much time concerned with themselves.
The writing was lovely, settings and people well drawn, everything about it well executed, but the story was full of holes. The level of dependancy between the twins was just plain weird, and you were left wanting to know far more about Edie than we ever got. The details that finally emerged about the rift were startling but then not believable, why would the husband have gone along with the switch when he was aware of it, and why would Elspeth have gone along with it and then given up her children to her sister? Why would Valentina have wanted to kill herself to escape? The holes in the 'resurrection' plan were just a step too far, a few ice cubes in the coffin were not going to do anything to delay the decay process. I actually thought that Elspeth was planning to steal Valentina's body for her own purposes and live a lie all over again to be back with Robert, in fact I think that would have made a better story, instead she takes it almost by accident. The scene where Robert steals the body from the mausoleum was the creepiest bit of the book, and utterly out of character, his participation in the whole thing, when he was plainly falling in love with Valentina, was unbelievable. So we end up with everything in a huge mess and no one getting what they wanted ... Robert is creeped out by his guilt at having Elspeth back and they have to run away for fear of being discovered, Valentina is stuck haunting the flat where Julia now lives alone, only Martin is happy, he goes off to be reunited with his wife in Amsterdam. I think the whole book was a bit of a warning to be careful what you wish for.

I have been struggling over the last few weeks to enjoy my reading. We had the whole intense few weeks of NaNoWriMo when I didn't read much and now am struggling to find where to go next. I read 'The Bell Jar', but it was depressing, maybe I'll get around to writing about it sometime. I started on 'The Heart is a Lonely Hunter' by Carson McCullers, and it was really really dull. I get the impression that although I thought I had read it before in my 20's I think I may have abandoned it last time too. I started reading 'The Children's Book' by AS Byatt but that was so so slow and failed to grab me, I was disappointed having read such good things about it and I had been saving it to read and looking forward to it. I read a few chapters of something by Josephine Cox and was relieved to find I write better than her and it's not just the literary snob in me that makes me avoid pulp fiction, it was **really** bad. I read 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting' by Milan Kundera, but it was such a period piece and so specific to the experience of his country that I am not sure I could say anything meaningful about it. Creature and I read 'The Man in the Picture' by Susan Hill together since we had both enjoyed 'The Woman in Black', but I did not think it was such a good story.
So, I think I should go back to the knitting, get Tish's sweater finished and get on with the blanket, and I promised to do a felted Kindle cover for my mum, so that is the project for this week.

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