Monday, January 03, 2011

symmetry in a cemetery

Tyger, tyger burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?—William Blake, The Tyger

Her Fearful SymmetryImage via Wikipedia

My mother used to read that poem to us at bedtime. I never got the "fearful" in it at a young age, I just liked the sound of the language. Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger, gives me a similar feeling. I like how she writes, how she uses language. She creates unusual, but interesting characters. People I wouldn't necessarily like in real life. In fact, I would decidedly find them creepy, or at least unsettling. But still interesting to read about. I don't need the character of a book to be my best buddy. And like Blake's Tyger, some of these characters, no matter how attractive, should be avoided at all costs. Her Fearful Symmetry is very voyeuristic—for the reader who chooses to look on and watch these characters grapple with their emotions and situations, for a ghost who desperately wants to do more than just watch.

One of the most intriguing ideas in the book for me was not so much the fairly mundane way the ghost and her subsequent haunting was accepted by all of the characters (although that was noteworthy, and as in her first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, added an instant authenticity to an unbelievable situation)—but that even though a ghost might retain many features of its person's personality after death—emotions, likes, dislikes, etc.—what might actually provide humanity is a body. That shell, that mortal coil that will someday turn to dust. What if the body, as opposed to the soul,  is what essentially gives us our humanity, our kindness? What if the soul is not love, but more our specificity, our personality? This possibility becomes important for one of the main characters, a ghost. As the ghost of Elspeth Noblin struggles with decisions regarding her human nieces, she is analytical, conflicted, sometimes regretful. But she never exhibits empathy or softness, or humanity. She is free, as a ghost, even when restricted to her old apartment, to be her essential, selfish, self. Lack of a body, lack of compassion.

The book tells the stories of two sets of twins, two generations. Its characters are all trapped in one way or another. The newly-minted ghost of Elspeth is confined to her London flat. She's not sure why, or what the "ghost rules" are, so she starts creating her own and happily, even gleefully, starts haunting. Julia and Valentina, her twin nieces who have inherited her flat, are bound together, more tightly than I ever wanted to imagine twins could be. This works for Julia, the stronger of the two (or is she?), but not for Valentina, who desperately wants to break free and experience life on her own. Robert, Elspeth's lover who lives in the downstairs flat, is trapped by his grief at Elspeth's death from leukemia and also by the book he is attempting to finish on the history of Highgate Cemetery, which is next-door to the apartment building. Martin, the upstairs neighbor, has OCD and has created a prison for himself of his flat, full of rituals, rules and regulations which have recently driven his wife away. Even a feral stray from over the cemetery walls, which the twins dub The Little Kitten of Death, is trapped by the girls in the flat as a pet.

All these trapped feelings and desires lead to some interesting character interactions and some outlandish plot turns. As Her Fearful Symmetry unfolds, I may not have liked the choices made by some of the characters, but I was engaged enough to see what would happen next. It was unusual, but successful, how Niffenegger was able to shift perspective from character to character, sometimes even within a sentence. This led to the feeling that there was no hero or heroine in the story, as everyone got their say. Valentina's story may turn out to be the most important for me, but other readers might think Elspeth's was the central story being told, or Martin's. Her Fearful Symmetry makes me want to visit Highgate Cemetery, maybe a tad relieved that I had one daughter and not twins, and hope that ghosts don't really become such intimate companions in one's home.

Book #1 in reading challenge Cannonball Read 3, sponsored by Pajiba

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