Sunday, February 28, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

Wow. You know how sometimes it seems like getting one little thing done takes forever? That's how I felt trying to finish getting dinner prepped so I could sit down to review this book! My tale of woe began with the fantastic discovery of the kosher smoked whitefish salad at Costco and ended with the not-so-fantastic discovery that the whole trout sold next to said whitefish salad is not filleted. Shoulda asked while I was there. Hours later I was still covered in scales and slime. I swear I will no longer trade in fish heads and skeletons. Anyway, on to Her Fearful Symmetry.

The author had me from the very beginning, at the first chapter, which is aptly and cleverly titled, "The End." Elspeth Noblin, the main character, begins the story by dying. She has bequeathed her London flat to her strange, overly interdependent twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. Early on it becomes clear that the relationship Elspeth had with her twin sister, Julia and Valentina's mother, even before their years of estrangement, had been fraught, complicated and mysterious.

Not everyone is a fan of Niffenegger's strange genre-busting stories -- part fiction, part science-fiction. In Her Fearful Symmetry the author weaves a thick thread of supernatural into an intricately constructed plot, just as she did in her breakout novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, which was recently made into a film.

In a Nov/Dec article about Niffenegger in Poets&Writers, her agent speaks to the dethroning of this idea of genre, of an idea fitting neatly in a box. Niffenegger's artful breaking of those traditional boundaries, he says, has been going on for some time, most notably years ago by Indy's own Vonnegut.

Also in this article we get a glimpse of the author as a child, a loner, sitting in her bedroom reading and drawing. Of her solitary, individualistic pursuits as a child, the author says, "I wish there was a way to let everybody know when they're twelve that being the kid that all the other kids think is a weirdo is actually a fabulous indicator of future amazingness." If only we could plaster that credo on our kids' schools' walls!

To truly appreciate this book one must be able to make a leap into a wider, "what if...?" kind of reality. To achieve believability, Niffeneggger creates characters so real that even the ghosts seem just like people we know.

If you're even the least bit Anglophilic, you'll love the focus on Highgate Cemetery and reading about the twins as they learn to navigate London.

My fiction gene is somewhat underdeveloped, but this was one of the rare books that held me so completely I felt sad when it came to "The (real) End."

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read either of Niffenegger's books, but your description of her genre bending writing could also describe the writing style of one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami. It's not really science fiction, but he expertly uses fantastical elements to tell his stories. You should check him out - it will bring back good memories of your trip to Japan!