Carla Acheson

Historical Fiction Author

her-fearful-symmetryThis book had me going from the very first sentence. Whether it’s a good story or not I still have no idea. It’s one of those rare books you continue reading because of its unfathomable and peculiar nature, combined with ridiculousness of a preternatural sense. Whilst reading this book I often felt as though I was joining the author in a very long eccentric dream.

It would be wrong to compare Her Fearful Symmetry with Niffeneger’s astoundingly popular ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife,’ a book which I started off disliking due to its mounting confusion, but which then emerged as one of my all time favourites.

With ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ we have an almost eccentric bunch of characters intermingling in a block of apartments within the gruesome setting of Highgate Cemetery, London. The main characters are Valentina and Julia – twenty-something American twins which act a bit like female versions of Sesame Streets Bert and Ernie.

An aberrant, yet gentlemanly, OCD recluse called Martin who seems randomly thrown into the mix to add interest, and Elspeth, a newbie ghost that sleeps in her desk drawer and haunts her flat in a rather humorously ‘human’ way, whilst her suffering lover Robert tries to come to terms with her absence. A few pretty uncommon and mystifying secrets wield the lives of these characters together in a very unorthodox way.

I believe what kept me coming back to this book is the sheer bizarre-ness of the story even though much of the events seemed quite ill-conceived. The plot didn’t really hail as the most exciting procedure in whole, but must it always be? I thought it plodded along at a pace which actually lulled me into a sense of quiet relaxation. On a good note, the prose is smooth, (Niffeneger’s words and phrases were gently contemplative and pleasant enough to relax and soothe my simmering literary mood last thing at night.) Some books are great to read in bed and this is one of them. I mean this in a good way but sadly, that’s about as good as it got. It definitely did not stir up the level of emotion I was hoping for.

Throughout the entire novel I wondered where it was all heading, because at various points the characters seemed a little aimless and flat, but I did get a distinct sense of two realities riding parallel to each other; except one is of an eerie spectral nature. In context to this story,  it is very ‘real’ in every sense and Niffeneger is brave to attempt balancing these two themes in a rather off kilter style.

I enjoy this author’s prose, but this is perhaps too much of a slow moving tale that seems quite randomly and bizarrely hacked together. If you can suspend disbelief in a supernatural sense, you can allow yourself to enjoy this alluring tale even though it is sadly lacking in a few areas of potential characterisation and plot development.

Don’t expect any earth-shattering climax at the end of the story either, apart from a little unexpected twist, which was a little spoilt by the fact that I had to spend a while working it out! This confusing revelatory family secret seemed intended to superfluously connect up all the loose ends rather than shatter lives, but for me it fell flat and didn’t really ‘save the day.’

The question is whether or not this book beats the popularity and merit given to TTF. In my opinion that shouldn’t be the focus when reading it. ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ is a different story and a different novel simply written by the same author and should be taken as such. Whether it is ‘preferred’ or not to the very successful former novel is really up to the expectation of her fans. I have a feeling some will love it, and others may find it doesn’t quite cut the biscuit.  For me, it’s definitely been worth the read, though I wouldn’t place it amongst my top range of best loved books.

My Rating: 3/5 stars


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