by Audrey Niffenegger
Audrey Nifenegger brought us a tale of time-displaced lovers. Now, she brings to us a tale of love from the other realm. The novel is set in London’s Highgate Cemetery. Ironically, it does not have a chilling, ghastly feeling, but rather gothic and elegant, with a little romanticism and sadness.
Death is not the ending, but it is just the beginning.
The novel starts with two lovers; Elspeth Noblin and Robert Fanshaw. She is breathing her last, and soon leaves Robert, grieving for her. However, before dying, she promises to haunt him.
Cut to identical twins, Julia and Valentina Poole. Both are like a single person, an entity itself, only with different characteristics and qualities. They receive a letter from their aunt, Elspeth, who leaves her apartment (and the things in it) to them and they may do whatever they wish with it, under one condition: their parents (Edwina – Elspeth’s identical twin – and Jack Poole) are not to set foot in the apartment or to check, read, see the belongings in the house.
The story buildup is slow, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring. Quite the contrary. Now, the word symmetry and cemetery sounds quite the same, especially in British accent. Go on, say it.
The novel is set in London’s famous Highgate Cemetery, where famous people have their eternal rest. The novel has symmetrical twins, as how it was intended by the wordplay. Elspeth and Edwina, and Julia and Valentina Poole. The Pooles are identical, mirror twins, so much so that even Valentina’s heart is on the right side.
Back to the story. The twins decide to live in that place, seeing as they have no ambitions to study or to work. They meet Robert, who lives on the ground floor and Martin who lives upstairs, an agoraphobic with OCD who writes crossword puzzles and was ditched by his wife, Marijke.
In the mean time, as things falls into place, as life carries on, Elspeth lurks in her apartment, and lives in her desk drawer. She is a spirit, a ghost. Time passes, and her strength grows, possessing strength to move things, scribble words, and generally, makes her presence known. She notices Robert, and the twins (and how they treat her possessions) and how Robert is drawn to Valentina.
The plot gets much more delicious from this point onwards. Elspeth and Edwina’s past are revealed. Valentina is tired and upset of being not being able to pursue her ambitions because of Julia’s disapproval, and does not want to be ‘half a person’ of Julia’s, but instead of a whole person.
She hatches a plan, getting a little bit of help from Elspeth and Robert: Elspeth would take her soul out, Robert would freeze her and when Elspeth return her soul to her body, she would have her own life.
Everything went well, except that Valentina’s soul never entered her body again.
The ending is left to your imagination, though it may seem that a meaning is implied. What happened? Well, that’s for you to read and find out. If you are looking for a happy-bittersweet ending like the first novel Ms. Niffenegger penned (The Time Traveler' Wife), you will be disappointed. Just be prepared: the novel has quite a grim and dark twist to it.
Kudos to her writing skills, every character was believable, that I even sympathized with Elspeth, even after she succeeded in her plans. And oh, who can describe Martin’s OCD of hand-scrubbing and number-counting rituals in such a detailed manner? As far as I know, Audrey Niffenegger is a storyteller that never disappoints.
This is one book you should have on your bookshelf.
P/S: Do keep a space for her upcoming book: The Chinchilla Girl in Exile.
Reviewed by Xavatos @ VanessaV