Identical twins scare people. Think The Shining. Julia and Valentina Poole are even more disconcerting, because, far from being mere identical twins, they are mirror twins, each a perfect reflection of the other- even beneath their skin. At twenty years old they do everything together; watch television, go out, eat… even drop out of college. The desires of the individuals are sacrificed to meet the needs of the unit. The sisters couldn’t be closer.
However, when their mother’s mirror twin dies in London, a woman the twins have never heard of, let alone met, she leaves the sisters all her possessions in her will on the condition that their parents are never allowed to enter her flat.
Desperate for adventure, the sisters move to her flat, an antiquarian’s dream overlooking Highgate Cemetery, forces neither twin could imagine begin to drive a wedge between them. Throw in a crossword setter who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and a man more at ease with the dead than the living and you have another excellent novel from the best-selling author of The Time Traveller’s Wife.
As anyone who has read The Time Traveller’s Wife knows, Niffenegger is bringing Magic Realism into the main stream with breathtaking stories which focus as much on characters and their relationships than the exceptional circumstances in which they life. Her Fearful Symmetry doesn’t disappoint in this respect, as Niffenegger weaves a modern Gothic Fairytale; crafting her characters with care, exploring their humanity and building drama creating stock heroes and villains. These characters are beautiful and flawed. Sketched on the page in simple black and white words, they are you and me; they are exceptionally vivid.
Niffenegger creates a multi layered story, and though the snaking plot threads are complex enough to ensnare the reader, they never become tangled by the magnitude and otherness of the story. At times, elements of the plot did become predictable in a way that The Time Traveller’s Wife never did but make no mistake, this novel is a great work of fiction and stands alone from its famous older sibling.
If you have no inclination to pick up this brilliant novel, I would recommend reading it for the character of Martin and the Highgate Cemetery Setting alone. The prose is beautiful, the plot well constructed; it was Martin however who simultaneously seemed wholly absurd and wholly alive to me. I’ve actually started to learn to do cryptic crosswords because of his character.
In a similar way, I am already planning a trip to Highgate Cemetery. Niffenegger’s description made me feel like Highgate was a place that I had spent my childhood in, exploring in the brambles yet terrified of the gravestones and mausoleums. Perhaps that’s a sign of a great writer; the ability to make an unknown environment at once familiar and other.
One day I will also visit Highgate and explore the environment I read about with such interest. I wonder if I will see shadows of the characters moving around. I call it New Gothic or Magic Realism (because we all like to label things) but behind the fantasy I almost believe this story could be true.
Read while eating slightly stale digestive biscuits, in a battered only arm chair by the light of a dim and somewhat rusty lamp.