People are always curious about what you’re reading. You see them sneaking furtive looks on the metro or in the lift, and usually a single glance is enough to sate their curiosity. But we can’t remember any other book prompting so many double takes, raised eyebrows and finally the question: ‘How is it?’
The buzz about Audrey Niffenegger’s new book, Her Fearful Symmetry, is hive-like. So we’ll cut to the chase and tell you the same thing we’ve told our curious fellow commuters: it’s really good, but it’s a lot different. The Niffenegger who wrote Her Fearful Symmetry bears a much closer resemblance to the visual artist who crafted the graphic novel The Three Incestuous Sisters than the one who wrote one of the biggest books of 2003, her debut, The Time Traveler’s Wife. This second novel is more of an ensemble work, featuring two sets of twins comprising two generations of a family, and a cast of surrounding characters. At the book’s beginning, Elspeth Noblin dies in an English hospital and a letter to her twin sister, Edwina, in Lake Forest, Chicago, announces she has left her London flat to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. Edwina and her husband, Jack, have eked out a distant, furtive marriage, in comparison to Elspeth’s relationship with her boyfriend Robert, whose loss is so strong he crawls into bed with Elspeth after she passes. The younger twins, Julia and Valentina, have already left college and, without any sure path, decide to move to London.
‘The essential project was to write a 19th century novel, but to have it be a contemporary novel,’ says Niffenegger, on the phone from her uptown Chicago home. ‘I’m adopting a lot of 19th-century techniques and clichés, and trying to make them work again. So I thought: That’s a great cliché, the rich relative who leaves you a fabulous flat.’
Elspeth, though, wasn’t content to live in the margins as that 19th-century cliché. Eventually, after working on the book for a couple of years, Niffenegger began thinking more about the rich aunt and decided to bring her back.
So when Julia and Valentina move to London, they not only encounter the neighbours who made up Elspeth’s extended family, but Elspeth’s ghost. As with The Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffenegger uses a touch of genre fiction to imbue Her Fearful Symmetry with an otherworldliness. And like Time Traveler, she uses the supernatural to explore loss in an unconventional manner. That Elspeth’s ghost lingers on the edges of her family’s lives only greys their understanding of their grief.
‘I believe Time Traveler is darker than people remember; there’s a nugget of nihilism at its core,’ says Niffenegger, laughing. ‘But in that book, time travelling was analogous to memory. And I think all of this ghostiness is very much like memory. It comes and goes and fades; it’s very troublesome and unmanageable. To me, that’s what loss is like. You can’t always dictate when you’ll get over it or recover from it.’ Niffenegger says she didn’t feel external pressure to follow Time Traveler with another blockbuster, but she did feel the need to do something different, and not just different for her.
‘What I liked about the stuff I grew up reading was that it was very low on irony,’ she says. ‘At a certain point, you just want to read something that means what it says and says what it means. I enjoy ironic wit as much as anybody, but it seems to have completely taken over modern fiction.’
Her Fearful Symmetry is published by Scribner. Dhs85, available at Magrudy’s.