Book Review – Her Fearful Symmetry
Title – Her Fearful Symmetry
Genre – Literary fiction/ghost story
Author – Audrey Niffenegger
Published – 2010
Enjoyment rating – 9/10
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The book’s title is not quite a quotation from William Blake’s poem “The Tyger”. It actually helps to know this and to have read the poem critically before reading the novel, because it adds an extra layer. The poem is one of Blake’s Songs of Experience, and it poses the question “Did God create evil?”
To the novel itself. Firstly, I don’t particularly like ghost stories. Secondly, the story is based on phenomena that science says cannot exist. Note, not phenomena that haven’t been detected, but phenomena where thermodynamics says this simply cannot happen. As someone who used to work as a professional scientist, that bugs me.
Audrey Niffenegger is a terrific writer, an absolute master of her craft. There are many aspects of her writing that are admirable, but the two I would pick out in this novel are these:
- She plants discreet little hooks in the text, not just every chapter, not just every scene, but every page, and we’re led on and on into the world she has created for us;
- She associates emotions with every description she makes, and the descriptions are emotionally absolutely precise. For example, to pick one entirely at random, ‘He put on a tie to talk on the phone with his wife. For some reason this made Julia a little depressed.’
The characters are unusual: older twin sisters, Elspeth and Edie, who parted many years earlier, and between whom there is antagonism; an academic, Robert, who is obsessed by Highgate Cemetery, and who is the lover of Elspeth; a crossword compiler, Martin, who suffers from OCD; the compiler’s Dutch wife, Marijke; and Valentina and Julia, the twin daughters of one of the estranged twins. These latter are mirror twins and live almost as a single person.
There is a mystery about the split between the older twin sisters. The novel starts with the death of one of them. She leaves a will that sets in motion a series of events that gradually unfolds and forms the framework on which the novel is built.
Martin’s wife eventually cannot cope with his OCD. She leaves him and returns to Holland; his attempts to reunite with her form an important sub-plot.
When his lover dies, Robert is distraught with grief. The consequences of his bereavement are the emotional driver that propels the book.
When I finished the novel, I found I was pondering the questions of Blake’s Tyger poem once again. Evil certainly exists; what part does the creator play in it?