SPOOKY SUNDAY: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

This week’s Spooky Sunday was a somewhat rushed affair as I actually ended up reading the majority of the book today due to a minor reading slump earlier in the week. Her Fearful Symmetry is a ghost story about twins which centers on a house bordering London’s famous Highgate Cemetery; it’s probably the least conventionally creepy book on my list but there’s still plenty to enjoy. The story centers on a pair of American twins who inherit a London flat which once belonged to their mother’s sister (themselves also twins) as well of the other residents of the house including their not quite departed aunt.

SPOILER WARNING: The following review contains minor spoilers for the plot of Her Fearful Symmetry

Much like Neverland, which I reviewed last week, Her Fearful Symmetry has problems with pacing. While the set up at the beginning of the story allows the reader to become acquainted with each character individually it also means these chapters are virtually free of action as well as very sparse on the story’s supernatural aspects. Although the pace picks up in the second half of the book much of the first half feels like a series of loosely connected incidents with little in the way of plot. In general Her Fearful Symmetry is very meandering book which is definitely driven by character and theme rather than plot.

One of the key themes at the center of the book is an exploration of twins and what it means to be so intertwined with another person’s life. As a twin myself, I was semi-expecting to resign this book to the annals of ‘Bad Fictional Representations of Twins’ (see the Weasleys from Harry Potter) especially given Julia and Valentina’s introduction as so inseparable they dress exactly alike and won’t even consider separate careers. However as the story develops the twins become separate entities as the reader is allowed insight into both their feelings on their relationship. Niffenegger manages to capture the stifling feeling that can come from living in someone else’s shadow, especially for those who have never managed to achieve any form of independence.

The other key theme is in the book is the idea of memory and memorial. With its setting bordering the cemetery, Her Fearful Symmetry is preoccupied with the way we are remembered after death, both in physical burial sites and through the memories of those left behind. The fear of forgetting those no longer with us is brought up several times and intertwines with the idea of how memory can differ between people until the truth becomes buried.

Unfortunately, one of the aspects of the book I didn’t like was the relationship between Valentina and Robert, her aunt’s ex-lover. Although it made more sense towards the climax of the book initially I was put off that Niffenegger seemingly wanted the reader to root for such an unhealthy and frankly slightly creepy relationship. Additionally, although most of the book’s characters are well formed, Julia feels a little under-drawn with her motivations not fully developed.

Ultimately the best parts of the book come in it’s climax where the supernatural elements finally come to the forefront and some actual creepiness occurs. This, to me definitely makes up for some of the slower passages at the beginning, especially the ending

For those looking for a Halloween read without wanting something seriously scary this book is ideal. It manages to evoke the sense of the season without resorting to any of the usual scare techniques instead focusing on the element of mystery and the unknown which the supernatural calls to mind. At it’s heart Her Fearful Symmetry is a cautionary tale warning us to be careful what we wish for, as getting exactly what we want might be the scariest thing of all.

3/5 stars

Featured Image: Cover detail from Her Fearful Symmetry designed by Rex Bonomelli, photograph by Tamar Levine.

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