Saturday, November 27, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry - A Disturbing Literary Ghost Story

(May contain mild spoilers)
It's not, hopefully, giving away too much to say that the most disturbing elements of Her Fearful Symmetry, by The Time Traveler's Wife's Audrey Niffenegger, come late in the novel. That's an essential note to make for horror readers, just to keep expectations realistic.

This is not a haunted house tale, not a tale of rattling chains, cackling spirits or creaking doors. No visceral horror creeps into the mix.

It's a rich, character-driven narrative with a supernatural component that builds its disturbing storyline carefully, allowing the reader to realize what's ahead with a growing sense of tension and dread.

Symmetry's Sphere
Her Fearful Symmetry is first, however, a novel of complicated people and complicated lives from deeply obsessive-compulsive Martin to focal twins Julia and Valentina Poole to ghostly Elspeth Noblin, who spends most of the novel dead though very much a part of the narrative.

Elspeth is sister to the twins's mother, Edwina, and upon her death the mirror twins inherit Elspeth's flat on the edge of London'a Highgate Cemetery, provided they live a year in the residence.

Much of the plot revolves around their stay and their interaction with Martin, a crossword puzzle author upstairs whose wife has decamped. Unable to leave his apartment or give up his ritualistic obsessions, he languishes and befriends Julia, while Valentina becomes infatuated with Robert, Elspeth's significant other who is obsessed in his own right with a never-ending thesis on Highgate.

I've been intrigued of late, as a reader, with the blurring of the lines between genre and literary fiction. In "Stranger Things" (The Writer's Chronicle, September 2009) author Debra Spark examines works with genre elements in which--in her point of view--merit creeps in. She looks at the Michael Chabon thriller The Yiddish Policeman's Union with its alternate history, for example, and Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link.

Symmetry does that beautifully, incorporating elements of the Victorian ghost story into a study of people, relationships and manipulation.

It is a literary drama in its depiction of the relationships mentioned, but from those interactions and personalities, Elspeth's ghostly presence and sinister plans begin to emerge. The title is accurate in spite of Elspeth's seeming benevolence, and, if strong plotting is the stuff of genre, then Niffenegger utilizes the genre tool well in tightening the knots formed by the various strands.

For those interested in horror that stretches mind and imagination, Symmetry is a great choice.

Symmetry for Kindle

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Charles Gramlich said...

Hum, intriguing review. I'm gonna have to check it out. Love the title, but I always loved that poem.

Sidney said...

Yeah, the title really fits. Good poem.

Lana Gramlich said...

Sounds really interesting!

Erik Donald France said...

Cool. I'm all for blurring boundaries and labels. Whatever works, plays.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

Can we really call this a ghost story? Is it not using the concept as a metaphor? It doesn't sound like genre, and you're warning to people expecting a horror story is probably well placed.

Sidney said...

Oh, I'd say it's definitely a ghost story, and it's ultimately quite chilling, but it builds to its overall effect.

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