Book Review – Her Fearful Symmetry

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?

Book Review – Hallucinating Foucault

Book Review – Hallucinating Foucault

Title – Hallucinating Foucault

Genre – Literary Fiction

Author – Patricia Duncker

Published 1996

Rating 10/10

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Wow! Just – wow!

I first read this novel about twenty years ago. I was impressed, yes, and some images stayed with me, but I remember feeling uncomfortable and slightly bemused.

In retrospect, I can see why that was; for all sorts of reasons I lacked the emotional generosity to respond authentically to a challenging love story – for, at its heart, ‘Hallucinating Foucault’ is a love story.

It’s a simple, linear narrative, the quest of a young scholar to find and free Paul Michel, the writer whose works have enthralled him.

Or is it?

The quest story lies nestled in a story of old passions; the passion of a man for his first love; the passion of an artist for his art; the passionate need of a writer for his ideal reader. By the time we reach the last page we can see a monumental structure, solid as concrete, against which the hapless scholar has been mercilessly broken. We can make out seductive whispers, just below the threshold of audibility, blaming Fate and denying human responsibility, even as they admit human agency.

We never learn the name of the scholar. It is as though he exists only in relation to Paul Michel. And yet, we care. I cared passionately for him. I shuddered with trepidation as the inevitable denouement approached. I wept at his destruction.

Few books have moved me like this one. Few books have given me such delight by the sheer quality of their writing.

Read this novel for its superlative writing. Read this novel for its insights into human love and life. But, above all, read this novel for pleasure; it’s a delight.

Normal People – a review

Normal People – a review

Author – Sally Rooney

Genre – Literary fiction

Rating – 9/10

This is an outstanding novel that explores the redemptive power of human love.

Marianne and Connell live in a provincial town in Ireland, and have known each other since childhood. Connell is popular; captain of the school football team, and with good social skills. Marianne is unpopular, derided for her looks, her dress sense and her refusal to conform to the social norms of her peers. Connell is poor; Marianne is well off. Both are extremely intelligent.

In their last year at school, they feel a powerful sexual attraction to each other, and make love. The experience reaches a level of intimacy that startles them both – but they conceal this. As far as the world knows they are casual friends.

Although by the time they go to university they have ‘split up’, the attraction is as strong as it ever was. They struggle against it, forming sexual relationships with other partners, but there is always that spark when they meet.  

Gradually we are led to understand how each of them is damaged. Can their relationship survive this? Can it, indeed, save them? For salvation is what they need; the stakes couldn’t be higher. If they get this wrong, they can never fulfil their potential; they will shrivel and die as individuals.

I found the novel gripping. Having read it once, I admired it so much that I read it again intending to learn from it. Lo and behold, I was about three pages in and the story took control again, and I just read it for pleasure. It really is that good!

Review – Magic Seeds by V S Naipaul

Review – Magic Seeds by V S Naipaul

I feel very tentative about reviewing this novel by V S Naipaul – he is, after all, a Nobel laureate, and I have no qualifications other than a love of the world of ideas and the writing of several novels that nobody wishes to publish.
The trouble is, I don’t like the book. I finished reading it, but the further through it I read, the more I was having to grit my teeth.
There are several reasons why.

First and foremost, this is a nihilistic book. It decries human aspiration and emphasises its futility. Only one character achieves his life’s goal, and that goal could be said to be bizarre: the character is an Afro-Caribbean man whose ambition is to have a perfectly white grand-daughter that he can acknowledge publicly. And he is a minor character.

The second reason I dislike the book is that it has a lack of credible emotions. The most glaring examples occur when the protagonist, Willie, is a member of a Maoist cadre in India. On one occasion he is present when his colleague blows out the brains of a man believed to have been an informant. Does Willie feel doubt? Guilt? Fear? Satisfaction? The author doesn’t tell us, doesn’t even hint. On the second occasion, he shoots dead a villager for no reason other than to terrorise the remaining villagers. Once again there is no emotion. Later on in the text, being an accessory to the first death fetches Willie a 10 year prison sentence. Does he think about the person who was killed? Not at all.
I can understand the emotionless killings in the nihilist context of the book. They could be said to be a metaphor for the lack of any value to a human life. One can imagine a psychopath being unemotional about the killings. The trouble is that later on in the novel Naipaul describes sexual relationships between men and women. In these, too, there is a lack of emotion – indeed, the only real emotion described is embarrassment.

The third thing I really dislike about the novel is the politics described towards the end. The poor are described in terms that are disparaging; they are viewed through the lens of far-right politics. This upsets me – but it’s also a flaw in the novel because it’s not true. Not merely is it not true, it neglects the genuine social progress that has been made during the period in which the novel is set – progress that in many cases arises from those who live in social housing who are so denigrated by the novel.

In the world that I see around me, people love, people hate, people feel. Love, especially family love, can work miracles. I don’t find any of that in this book.

The writing is bloody brilliant, of course…