Armand Halbert
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Published on:
Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Her Fearful Symmetry

Identity and Death

Often the labels we use to describe ourselves are a prison of our own making. We so closely identify with them that change is impossible, even if the label will kill ourselves. In Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger tells a story of people defined by labels imposed by the world and themselves.

One of the reasons I admire Audrey Niffenegger’s work is how well she integrates the supernatural with the modern world. Time travel, for example, is one of the easiest ways to ruin an otherwise good story; However, in The Time Traveler’s Wife, it was smoothly inserted into a tragic love story. Like a good magician, she always knows what facts about the supernatural to reveal and what to not. In Her Fearful Symmetry, Nifnegger masters suspension of disbelief just as well; While I found the ending a little silly, the basic premise always felt natural.

Ms. Niffenegger was a caretaker of Highgate cemetery, and her love of the cemetery is apparent. Small facts about the cemetery are dropped throughout the novel. And unlike Victor Hugo, who will drop a 50-page monologue about the sewers of Paris in the middle of the plot, Audrey Nifenegger’s facts are plot relevant. Over the course of the novel we learn about the origins of the cemetery, its residents, and its aesthetic design, without even knowing we are learning it. In a sense, the cemetery provides a form of afterlife to its inhabitants.

Twins and shared identities are an overarching theme of Her Fearful Symmetry. Valentina and Julia are exactly alike, to the point of them dressing exactly the same. No twins would ever actually behave this way, but Nifennegger makes it seem natural and unnatural at the same time. Despite Julia and Valentina’s similarities, much of the tension of the plot involves them trying to suppress their differences for the sake of maintaining their twinship. The effect is quite haunting; while the twins have distinct personalities, they are similar enough to be creepy.

Their mother is also a twin with Elspeth as well. This leads to a rather predictable plot twist, that Julia and Valentina are actually Elspeth’s biological children. Despite the possibilities, the implications are never really explored. Does the twin identity change when they discover their mother is not their biological mother? After all, their mother has the same genetic sequence as the mother that raised them, and their biological father is the same. In addition, several questions remain unanswered. For example, why does Jack allow Edith and Elspeth to switch places? None of these questions are really considered, and the plot addition serves nothing but to confuse the relationships between characters.

Martin’s OCD has become his defining trait, and has literally trapped himself with his label. it takes someone else’s. I would have liked to . I doubt actual OCD is like Martin’s, but it serves to illustrate how debilitating OCD can be, when it is often played for laughs. Mental illness is seen as a way to drive a plot, to make a bad guy, a flaw for a sidekick to have. Schizophrenia is sometimes portrayed as multiple personality disorder. A writer who goes on to show a compassionate picture of living with mental illness is a plus to me, even if it is an exaggerated picture. Most importantly, Niffenegger is able to illustrate the trap of mental illness - knowledge that your thoughts are irrational, but unable to correct them. Martin knows his rituals are insane, but he is compelled to practice them; if fails to do so, the stress builds until it becomes unbearable. And he’s become so defined by his illness that the idea of treatment is anathema to him - it would be like losing himself.

Labels are our security blanket, but they are also suffocating, often to the point of death. However, even in death there is hope. Valentina, Robert, and Martin all find ways to resurrect themselves, whether it be by abandoning their previous lives or joining the afterlife.

While good, Her Fearful Symmetry is unable to meet the level of The Time Traveler’s Wife. The plot suffers in that it is somewhat incoherent, especially towards the end. A lot of narrative is stuffed into too few pages. Niffenegger is usually careful with her pacing, taking time to savor character’s thoughts and the world. Towards the end, this is abandoned, and it feels rushed, in contrast to the careful construction of the rest of the book.

Some of the characterizations we are told do not match the actions are. Robert states that Elspeth seems crueler as a ghost, and manipulative. However, we are never given evidence for it. Nothing about Elspeth’s, other than her desire to rejoin the living comes across as particularly cruel or manipulative. She even doubts the morality of her own actions. What made Robert think she was cruel?

Still, despite its flaws, the novel is a wonderful look at how destructive shared identities can be to ourselves.

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