Her fearful symmetry – a book review

Author: Audrey Niffenegger

Title: Her fearful symmetry

Leicester, U.K. : Jonathan Cape, 2009

Sarah’s pick

Elspeth Noblin, rare book collector, dies of leukaemia aged 44. She leaves her apartment bordering London’s Highgate Cemetery to her nieces with the proviso that they live in it for one year before they can sell it. Her nieces Julia and Valentina are mirror twins- identical twins who are mirror images of each other.

 The twins live in Illinois and are drifting along, having left college a couple of times. They have always done everything together, with Julia being more dominant. Their mother Edie is Elspeth’s twin; the older set of twins are estranged although we don’t find out why until well into the novel.  

The twins move to London. The apartment is an old building with 2 other flats. Highgate is a Victorian era cemetery and many famous people are buried here, including Karl Marx, Radclyffe Hall and Michael Faraday. The author worked as a tour guide at Highgate while researching this book. 

Robert Fanshaw, the partner of Elspeth lives downstairs. He is working on a thesis about Highgate Cemetery and also works there as a tour guide. Robert is still missing Elspeth greatly and delays meeting the twins but later falls in love with Valentina. 

Upstairs is Martin, a cryptic crossword writer and translator of ancient and classical languages. Martin has obsessive compulsive disorder and cannot bring himself to leave the flat. His wife has had enough of his rituals and has returned to her native Amsterdam. Julia tries to help him by giving him medication and calling it “vitamins”. Martin is aware of this but pretends to Julia that he doesn’t know. The character of Martin was an interesting one although I couldn’t quite see how he fits into the main story. 

In Elspeth’s flat we find that Elspeth has been trapped there for over a year as a ghost, building up strength. The twins and Robert start to communicate with her. Valentina forms a close bond with Elspeth and together they come up with a plan to free her from the dominance of Julia. But will it all work out or will Elspeth’s interference lead to more problems?