Automatic writing, homemade ouija boards, bodysnatching, mistaken identity—these are but a few of the spooky pleasures that await the reader of Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger’s latest novel.
Six years after her wildly successful book The Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffenegger returns with a riveting contemporary ghost story set in the environs of London’s famed Highgate Cemetery, the final resting place of Karl Marx and George Eliot, among other luminaries.
Her Fearful Symmetry (the title is an allusion to William Blake’s poem “The Tiger”) is the story of mirror-image twins, Julia and Valentina, who share a preternaturally intense bond. Their aunt Elspeth, their mother’s twin whom they’ve never met, dies of cancer and bequeaths to them her flat with the stipulation that they live there for a year. Before this sudden windfall, the twins have been somewhat adrift; neither seems to have any desire to finish college or to leave the home they share with their parents in a quiet Chicago suburb. Their indolence might be typical of many an American 20-year-old, but these girls are anything but typical. They move to Elspeth’s apartment, on the outskirts of Highgate, and come to know the building’s other inhabitants—Martin, a charming crossword puzzle creator suffering from crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Robert, Elspeth’s bereaved lover and a scholar of the cemetery. As their lives become intertwined, they soon discover that the building houses another resident—the recently deceased Elspeth.
We spoke to Niffenegger from her Chicago home shortly before she departed on another trip to London.
The author says she first traveled to London to visit Highgate in 1996 and had a “miraculous and amazing” experience that became the germ of Her Fearful Symmetry. She had been toying with an idea for a book that somehow involved a cemetery, but wasn’t sure exactly what shape it would take. She had originally set the novel in her hometown of Chicago, but Highgate proved to be the perfect setting. First, however, she had to win over the Friends of Highgate, the organization that closely guards the cemetery’s legacy. Over time she was able to convince them that she wasn’t going to do “any sort of zombie thing,” and thus the novel was born.
Having never lived in London, Niffenegger spent a fair amount of time conducting research at the British Library and getting involved with the cemetery, where she is now a guide. She says writing this book was completely different than writing Time Traveler. “For one thing, with Time Traveler, I just sort of exuberantly jumped in and started doing it because I’d never done any kind of novel before, so I was kind of splashing around . . . trying things out . . . experimenting.” For her new novel, Niffenegger was determined not to recreate the same thing or revisit the same territory. “I thought maybe I could teach myself to write a different kind of book, and so on a technical level there were a lot of things I had to learn to do. . . . I had to start consciously analyzing and reading from other books.” Though echoes of Edgar Allan Poe can be heard throughout Her Fearful Symmetry, Niffenegger says, “The books I’m consciously modeling on are Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White and Henry James’ Turn of the Screw and Portrait of a Lady.” She acknowledges that other influences may be at play as well, “All sorts of things creep in there, and you don’t even realize it, ” with "creep" being the operative word here. The book is as entertaining as it is unsettling (albeit in a titillating sort of way).
Sisters, doubling and opposites are subjects that come up over and over again in Victorian literature, Niffenegger says, citing a Dorothy Sayers short story about mirror-image twins. She says her intention was to use these Victorian tropes as unobtrusively as possible.
“I think people who haven’t read much 19th-century fiction might find this thing a bit odd because the rationale for certain plot turns and character traits comes from the existence of previous characters and previous plots,” muses Niffenegger.
“People kept telling me that Julia and Valentina seemed unnaturally kind of wrapped in cotton,” she says. “For contemporary girls, it’s ridiculous. I think people were a little perplexed by it.” She likens them to “every Henry James heroine who emerges out of nothing and goes to the old country and has all these complicated experiences.” Niffenegger describes the twins as a type, not exactly modeled on Isabel Archer (from James’ The Portrait of a Lady) but certainly inspired by her. For this reason they do seem slightly anachronistic, somewhat out of step, even ethereal. “They have their own little world,” she says.
Though all her characters feel fleshed out (ghosts included), Robert, who becomes increasingly unraveled by Elspeth’s presence, is also a type. “Robert comes from a long tradition of rather weak men, but he does finally get it together,” Niffenegger explains. “He’s sort of like all those men in Greek myth and various medieval tales who are enchanted . . . and the triumph is of them getting away from the enchantress.”
Elspeth’s character also harkens back to other tales of the arabesque. “In ghost literature, the ghosts are often described as being hungry and cold and desperate to get close to people for the warmth; and there’s always this sense with the ghosts that they really aren’t people anymore, and they don’t have the full range of human emotions, so I was trying to gradate that . . . so the longer Elspeth’s been dead, the less she empathizes . . . she just gets more and more selfish”—a truth evidenced in the book’s chilling denouement.
For Niffenegger, delving into the supernatural wasn’t a way to explore questions of a metaphysical or spiritual nature, but a literary conceit, a way to tell a story—while paying homage to some of the great ghosts of literature.
She says, “If you look at both of my novels, you see that there is no God. I’m a total skeptic, which doesn’t mean that I object to other people believing anything they want to believe. In the case of Time Traveler, there’s no purpose and no control to Henry’s time traveling, and he’s just kind of like a ping pong ball, ponging around. With the characters in Fearful Symmetry, they all have this kind of vague, modern tiny bit of religion, but they’re really secular people, all of them. Martin, with his magical thinking, is really as close as anyone gets to actual belief.”
Of the phenomenal popularity of Time Traveler, Niffenegger says simply,” It’s crazy.” She imagined that the book would be published by a small press (which it originally was), for a small audience. “I never expected the book club phenomenon,” which she cites as the main factor in the novel’s success. “I didn’t think it was a book that would appeal to that many people.” Of the movie, released this summer, she hasn’t seen it and doesn’t plan to. “I don’t discuss the movie in any kind of depth because I haven’t seen it and also because the movie belongs to the people who made the movie. All the decisions were their decisions, and they had complete control over it. They made the movie they wanted to make without any interference from me. . . . I decided to preserve my own experience with my own book.”
Niffenegger, a visual artist whose stunning artwork can be seen at audreyniffenegger.com, teaches art at Columbia College in Chicago and published two illustrated novels prior to Her Fearful Symmetry. (She’s currently teaching a class about putting writing and images together.) Though her work has been compared to Edward Gorey, she says, “The person I really claim as an influence is Aubrey Beardsley,” a 19th-century art nouveau illustrator.
Asked if she ever considered illustrating Her Fearful Symmetry, she offers a definitive “no,” and adds, "The great thing about just words is that you can leave these empty spaces that people will fill.” Niffenegger is deliberately evasive when asked about what kind of book she might write next. With her penchant for all things Victorian, we wonder if historical fiction is in her future. She says the closest that she might get to something like that would be steampunk, a subgenre of fantasy and speculative fiction with Victorian overtones. The most she will reveal is that she’s working on something that takes place in 1972, which, depending on your perspective, could be considered historical fiction after all.
While it’s true that English lit buffs will relish the many literary allusions and Victorianisms in Her Fearful Symmetry, you certainly don’t have to be an English major to enjoy this spellbinding story, solid proof that Niffenegger’s ascending star is burning bright.
Katherine Wyrick writes from her home in Little Rock.