It is not your ordinary ghost story, nor is it conventional. It may have the main ingredients like ghosts and a cemetery but the complex story of deceit, love, pride and loneliness strokes a different supernatural approach. On top of everything, this has no happy ending. It showcases the folly of men; although founded with good intentions, it can spin out of control and eventually fall apart.
I’ve been meaning to read it since last year but the need to linger with The Time Traveler’s Wife pushed me to let it mellow. There was a silent requirement to disentangle myself from Niffenegger’s previous novel in order for me not to look for the beautiful esoteric weaving she has so astutely provided. Given that it was widely raved, a disassociation to its characters becomes necessary.
Until one day I knew I was ready and the timing couldn’t be more appropriate.
Her Fearful Symmetry is a story about two set of twins. The first are estranged and the other still hold hands even when they are into their early twenty’s. The younger twins Julia and Valentina are left with several hundred pounds and a London flat for inheritance. Much to everyone’s surprise, they can only collect if they live in it for a year. The older twins on the other hand only start correspondence when one is diagnosed with cancer.
The character I fell in love with is Robert. A PhD writing about the history of Highgate Cemetery (set in London) and a bereaved lover of the cancer riddled Elspeth. He evoked pity and while we wish for him to stop falling for an echo of his past lover, we understand his solitude. I might have wanted a different ending for him yet it did not affect the magnitude he brought in for the novel. It felt, to some extent, that his love could have saved him or even the undead. He made for a good damned lover.
The main characters Elspeth, Julia and Valentina were also believable. While they mix their errors and wins altogether, the lives they live are poignant and amiss at most. Their macabre creations and choices wins the story. The very many crisis they imagined and created for themselves comes illusive at first but it ultimately results to a delectable read.
Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup. Later he would remember walking down the hospital corridor with the cup of horrible tea in his hand, alone under the fluorescent lights, retracing his steps to the room where Elspeth lay surrounded by machines. She had turned her head toward the door and her eyes were open; at first Robert thought she was conscious.
In the seconds before she died, Elspeth remembered a day last spring when she and Robert had walked along a muddy path by the Thames in Kew Gardens. There was a smell of rotted leaves; it had been raining. Robert said, “We should have had kids,” and Elspeth replied, “Don’t be silly, sweet.” She said it out loud, in the hospital room, but Robert wasn’t there to hear.
Elspeth turned her face towards the door. She wanted to call out, Robert, but her throat was suddenly full. She felt as though her soul were attempting to climb out by way of her oesophagus. She tried to cough, to let it out, but she only gurgled. I’m drowning. Drowning in a bed . . . She felt intense pressure, and then she was floating; the pain was gone and she was looking down from the ceiling at her small wrecked body.
Robert stood in the doorway. The tea was scalding his hand, and he set it down on the nightstand by the bed. Dawn had begun to change the shadows in the room from charcoal to an indeterminate grey; otherwise everything seemed as it had been. He shut the door.
Robert took off his round wire-rimmed glasses and his shoes. He climbed into the bed, careful not to disturb Elspeth, and folded himself around her. For weeks she had burned with fever, but now her temperature was almost normal. He felt his skin warm slightly where it touched hers. She had passed into the realm of inanimate objects and was losing her own heat. Robert pressed his face into the back of Elspeth’s neck and breathed deeply.
Elspeth watched him from the ceiling. How familiar he was to her, and how strange he seemed. She saw, but could not feel, his long hands pressed into her waist — everything about him was elongated, his face all jaw and large upper lip; he had a slightly beakish nose and deep-set eyes; his brown hair spilled over her pillow. His skin was pallorous from being too long in the hospital light. He looked so desolate, thin and enormous, spooned around her tiny slack body; Elspeth thought of a photograph she had seen long ago in National Geographic, a mother clutching a child dead from starvation. Robert’s white shirt was creased; there were holes in the big toes of his socks. All the regrets and guilts and longings of her life came over her. No, she thought. I won’t go. But she was already gone, and in a moment she was elsewhere, scattered nothingness.
The nurse found them half an hour later. She stood quietly, taking in the sight of the tall youngish man curled around the slight, dead, middle-aged woman. Then she went to fetch the orderlies.
Outside, London was waking up. Robert lay with his eyes closed, listening to the traffic on the high street, footsteps in the corridor. He knew that soon he would have to open his eyes, let go of Elspeth’s body, sit up, stand up, talk. Soon there would be the future, without Elspeth. He kept his eyes shut, breathed in her fading scent and waited.
Her Fearful Symmetry delivers well on the lovely-kind-of-sad we reserve for tragic stories. We’ve read many books about the meaning of life but this talks most of its severe meaninglessness when we press for things we should just let go.
There may be comments that some plots slipped off center, but this is only because Niffenegger feels the need for further exposition. The push for muted rage on the oncoming tragedy (or triumph) fished for that much basic. I for one consumed every page with delight. I might have felt utterly sad for the bleak ending but that’s what good novels are made of: a deep cut and an unsealing stab.
Written by The Time Traveler’s Wife author Audrey Niffenegger