Her Fearful Symmetry

Fortune’s wheel is a harsh chastiser, and those lucky writers who have found heady success with their first books often come crashing down with the second, never to rise again. What’s the cause? Do they succumb to nerves from external expectations? Do they secretly feel unworthy? Are our expectations as readers unreasonable? Have they merely been sport for the gods?

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger’s first book, was Cinderella at the ball — a book that got published without a literary agent behind it, a popular success that was a critical one too. Its distinctive (and, I assume from Niffenegger’s acknowledgments, long-steeped) flavor completely eluded the dumb movie made from it. Describing the novel as blending fantasy, science fiction, romance, mild philosophy, and epistolary traditions is technically accurate, but fails to capture its unusual charm: its balance of inevitability and suspense, the importance of conversations both humorous and tersely poignant, the cultural riffs and bookish background of Chicago in the ’80s and ’90s, the bubble of optimism that buoys it up even in the face of death and decay. It’s a great read. Given the weight of expectations (and money) riding on her second book, the conditions were ripe for Niffenegger to dig her own grave. But it turns out that in her second book, Her Fearful Symmetry, Niffenegger gets her characters to do the grisly digging for themselves while she floats out smelling like a rose.

The book is mostly set in London, indeed mostly in, around, and even under Highgate Cemetery. Connoisseurs of graveyards will recognize it as the now lushly overgrown final resting place of Victorians eager to escape the horrors of urban burial where Dickens, among others, described dogs running off with the bones of the less recently departed. Famous inhabitants of Highgate include Karl Marx, George Eliot, and Lizzie Siddal, dug up seven years after her death by her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, when he had second thoughts about publishing those manuscript poems he’d romantically but rashly buried with her. (The story goes that her red-gold hair had continued to grow to fill the coffin, but the red-leather-covered manuscript was worm-holed, damp, and stained.)

The cemetery provides the ground against which twin American young women — still really girls in much of their behavior and manner, naive and antiseptic — come to determine the shape of their lives. Julia and Valentina have grown up in the Chicago suburbs. They have taken on some unimaginative generational protective coloration (on tv “President Bush was talking to Karl Rove. . . . The twins gave the finger to the president and his aide in unison”), but they are in fact rather odd. To begin with, they are physically distinctive — pale and etiolated — and there are two of them, identical but flipped: mirror-image twins. They usually dress identically and do the same things. They are striking, and yet somehow insubstantial. Their actions and opinions are curiously trivial. But, as the man said, the prospect of death concentrates the mind wonderfully. The twins first face death at a distance. An aunt, their mother’s twin sister, whom they barely knew existed, has died and left them something: her flat, which not only overlooks Highgate Cemetery but is built into its walls. When they move there, death becomes closer.

Even unavoidable. Robert, one of their fellow tenants and their Aunt Elspeth’s lover, should serve as an instructive example. He started off visiting the cemetery because he was writing a dissertation about Victorian funerary practices and ended up living next door to it, giving tours of the cemetery, and sneaking in at night. Robert has found that “he liked the cemetery itself much better than anything he wrote about it.” That’s saying something, because his draft is very long. Their other fellow tenant, Martin, is an obsessive-compulsive crossword-puzzle setter — the cryptic kind, natch. He escapes the cemetery’s influence by papering over his windows. Or does he? For surely he’s managed to immure himself in a simulacrum of a crypt. In fact, all of them — Martin, Julia, Valentina, and even the dead Elspeth — share Robert’s problem: “He began to take the cemetery personally and lost all perspective.”

Niffenegger lures us into this sepulchral world, too. For the most part, she shapes her crepuscular atmosphere subtly, even down to using English spellings. As a child, I had a quite distinct sense of certain words when they were spelled the English way: “draught” (which I mispronounced) seemed hollower and more penetratingly chilly than “draft,” “spectre” more haunting, and “grey” a wispy whisper of tint. Like the best ghost stories, Niffenegger’s ghost story takes shape from evocative foggy patches, half-remembered phrases and twists of plot. It’s not exactly deja vu all over again, but Her Fearful Symmetry is a very bookish ghost story. In fact, Elspeth, her ghost, learns a lot about post-life behavior via books — Henry James, M. R. James, Noël Coward, and Gray’s Anatomy.

The Victorians thrilled to ghost stories, creepy ones, of course, but even ultimately comic ones like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Recently, in the last ten years or so, there seems to have been a resurgence of wonderful, and bookish, supernatural tales: A. S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and Neil Gaiman’s Cemetery Book. These books seem to transcend the limitations of pastiche and genre to appeal to people who don’t think of themselves as liking science fiction, fantasy, or ghost stories — and that would include me. Audrey Niffenegger’s new book — in which Gaiman appears in the lengthy acknowledgments — is a worthy addition to these predecessors.

An additional note: Niffenegger has endowed Robert with an extensive admiration for a bunch of famous dead Victorians, but he disdains Mrs. Henry Wood, the author of sensational stories like her bestselling novel East Lynne. Robert might be a happier man today if he’d read her more seriously. The melodramatic East Lynne turns on adultery, disguise, and a dying child. But of the 30 or so novels Ellen Wood wrote, her own favorite was The Shadow of Ashlydyat, a ghost story in which supernatural phenomena are not explained away, and in which (most unusually for the moral Mrs. Wood, whose first novel won an award from a temperance society) an energetic and unscrupulous woman is left unchecked at the end. Both of these novels are still in print more than 100 years later. That’s an afterlife to aspire to.