A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Julia and Valentina Poole are normal American teenagers – normal, at least, for identical “mirror” twins who have no interest in college or jobs or possibly anything outside their cosy suburban home. But everything changes when they receive notice that an aunt whom they didn’t know existed has died and left them her flat in an apartment block overlooking Highgate Cemetery in London. They feel that at last their own lives can begin … but have no idea that they’ve been summoned into a tangle of fraying lives, from the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives above them to their aunt’s mysterious and elusive lover who lives below them, and even to their aunt herself, who never got over her estrangement from the twins’ mother – and who can’t even seem to quite leave her flat …
This is a book of five fifths. Four of them are marvellous, but alas the final fifth rather falls apart, strangled by its own convoluted plotline. Naturally, Niffenegger writes with that same clarity, precision and gripping power that she used for her glorious first novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, which was reviewed on Vulpes Libris here. I even don’t mind the occasional use of different character viewpoints within individual scenes – usually a publishing no-no, but Niffenegger does it with style. Her characters are also fascinating and portrayed with great vigour. I loved the ghostly Elspeth and the unravelling of her relationship (due to her death) with the grieving Robert. The scenes between them are devastatingly sharp and poignant, all the more so as Elspeth is at first unable to show Robert that she is still there, after death. The first line is so beautifully bleak that I was right there in the book’s world from the start:
Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup.
Even from that moment of death, the fates of Elspeth and Robert are inextricably bound up in each other:
Now he (Robert) was full of her smells, her voice, the hesitation on the telephone before she said his name, the way she moved when he made love to her, her delight in impossibly high-heeled shoes, her sensuous manner when handling old books and her lack of sentiment when she sold them.
Wonderful. That surely tells you everything you need to know about the relationship in one succinct paragraph. It’s interesting therefore that their couple dynamic rapidly loses momentum the moment Robert is able to communicate with his dead lover; the dynamic was in the lack of contact between them, not in its strangely fluid resolution.
I also think the OCD crossword compiler, Martin, is a magnificent character, even though he hardly leaves the flat at all. The descriptions of his compulsions and the things he has to do to survive his day are grippingly revealed, and I particularly liked the interactions with his absent wife, Marijke. The scene where Marijke has to find somewhere to put her goodbye note that won’t upset Martin’s OCD impulses is one of the best in the novel, as is her ingenious solution. Indeed, this novel is very much focused (a) on absent women and the effects they have on the people they leave behind, or should leave behind; and (b) on the men desperate at any cost to get their womenfolk back.
Which brings me in roundabout fashion to the twins, Julia and Valentina. It puzzled me as I began to read as to why the blurb should focus on them as the main characters, when the main characters are so obviously Elspeth, Robert and Martin, all of whom have very strong and individual voices within the text. That’s not to say Julia and Valentina aren’t strong, as they are. Very much so. But, for me, they were secondary characters who weren’t in the end as interesting as the adults in the books. Still, blurb writers follow their own strange laws, and there’s neither rhyme nor reason to them. I also admit that – entirely due to the really nasty portrayal of the twins on the cover, where they look shallow, mean and cruel in the extreme – I was dreading having to read about them. Which does prove that covers have a huge influence on how one begins a book, I think, but that’s perhaps a posting for another time. On the cover, they are the sort of young hard-faced gals I would run screaming from if I saw them in the street. In the text they’re actually rather sweet and charmingly unconfident (Valentina) or charmingly direct (Julia). They might even offer me a cup of tea, which always goes down well.
In some senses, the twins are there to throw light on the other characters; in particular, Julia’s growing friendship with Martin is fascinating and very sparky, whilst Valentina falls in love with Robert:
Because Valentina was shy herself – because she had spent her life with an extrovert who never tired of mocking her timidity – since she had never met a person who seemed normal and was abruptly revealed to be acutely inhibited; because there was a profound intimacy in observing Robert’s fear; because she was emboldened by Julia’s presence: Valentina stepped closer to Robert and put her hand on his arm. Robert looked at her over the rims of his glasses.
‘It’s okay,’ she said. He felt, without being able to express it to himself, that something lost had been restored to him.
It’s also strangely heartening to have a character – Elspeth – who stays with us throughout the whole book but who’s actually a ghost. I did enjoy that, and I think on the whole Niffenegger deals with it very well. I found much pleasure in reading about how the ghost world works and how strange and difficult Elspeth finds it, and how much she has to practise in order to perfect her ghostly skills. It was a very different take on the concept of the afterlife and I appreciated that.
Much, I believe, has been said already by many other people about the role of Highgate Cemetery in this book, and the amount of practical research the author carried out in order to realise the setting. Most of the time, it works, but I have to admit there is one scene where Robert takes a tour around the Cemetery that screamed out: the author has done the research and will make you read it whether or not it’s interesting. Which surprised me from a writer this accomplished. I didn’t need to read every detail about every grave, and I found myself skipping this section and sighing. Less is, really, more.
Turning to the issue of the plot however, the novel is ultimately very confusing and a lot of jarring things happen in the latter sections that didn’t work at all. It drifted somewhere between a Shakespearian take-off (arrghh, those wretched twins – it leads nowhere!) and a B-list horror film, and wasn’t really sure which camp it belonged to. I would say more but I’ll be in danger of giving away too much, and I don’t want to do that.
So this is a book that includes a wealth of rich and fascinating characters who interact with each other in realistic and moving ways. It’s a shame about the final thinness of the plot then; the interactions are nicely built up throughout four-fifths of this novel, but the storyline rather lags behind and isn’t a suitable vehicle for the people written about. It felt very much like watching a film with Class A actors in a Class C plot – a wasted opportunity really. Indeed, during the last fifth of the novel, so much that is ridiculous happens that more than once I ended up laughing with despair. I also found myself becoming slowly disengaged with the novel as a result, which is a shame as the writing and the characters are just so good.
That said, the last few pages are, thankfully, quite magnificent and we’re left in exactly the right scenario which leaves us with the terrible realisation that the worst thing, as Oscar Wilde probably once said, is to get what you wish for. A lesson for us all indeed.
Her Fearful Symmetry, Jonathan Cape 2009, ISBN: 978 0 224 08561 8
[Anne is always rather partial to a little spookiness in books. To discover her other sinister secrets, please click here.]