Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

photo credit of Highgate Cemetery here

“Welcome to Highgate Cemetery,” Jessica said. “Robert will be your guide. He is one of our most Learned Guides, an historian of the Victorian Era, and is writing a book about this cemetery. All of our work is done on a voluntary basis, and every year we must raise over three hundred and fifty thousand pounds just to keep the cemetery open.” Jessica flirted with them as she spoke, and exhibited the green box. “As you leave, a volunteer will be stationed at the gate with this green box, and any help you can give will be Much Appreciated.” Robert watched the tourists fidget. Jessica wished them a Pleasant Tour and went back to the office. She felt a flutter of excitement. Why? She stood at the office window and watched Robert gather his group in front of the Colonnade steps. He stood two steps up and spoke to them, looking down, gesturing. From where they stood, the tourists could not see anything but greenery and the steps. Those girls look extraordinarily like Elsepth. How amazing life is. I hope he’ll be all right. He looked a bit pale.
Robert tried to clear his mind. He felt as though he were watching himself, as though he had separated into two Roberts, one of whom was calmly giving a tour; the other mute with nerves, trying to think what he might say to the twins. Bloody hell, you’d think you were seventeen. You don’t have to talk to them. They’ll talk to you. Wait.
This is what Robert was thinking as he began to lead the tour group through Highgate Cemetery in London. It is his job to be a tour guide while he works on his dissertation, but he has never expected that two members of his group would be twins. Would be, in fact, the nieces of his newly deceased lover, Elspeth.

Elspeth has left her home in London to her nieces, under the condition that they live in it for one full year. And, that they never let her sister, the twin’s mother, inside. There has been a terrible rift between the two, one which divided them while Elspeth was alive and continues on into her death. Because with Audrey’s writing, time is never as we know it. Even death becomes a novelty, a concept which Audrey pounces on like a little kitty as she bats it back and forth across our consciousness.

I loved how she played with my mind, bringing the twins Julia and Valentina to London where they meet Elspeth’s lover, Robert. Where they live under Martin who suffers so horribly with OCD that his wife has finally left him, returned to Amsterdam where she doesn’t have to live under the constraints which Martin imposes on his life. Marijke’s letter to Martin includes this eloquent explanation:
I don’t know if you can understand, but I will try to explain. I need to live my life without being always vigilant to calm your fears. I am tired, Martin. You have worn me out. I know that I will be lonely without you, but I will be more free. I will find myself a little apartment and open the windows and let the sun and the air come in. Everything will be painted white, and I will have flowers in all the rooms. I will not have to always enter the rooms with my right foot first, or smell bleach on my skin, on everything I touch. My things will be in their cupboards and drawers, not in Tupperware, not wrapped in cling film. My furniture will not wear out from being scrubbed too much. Maybe I will have a cat.
Perhaps she finds a cat. I don’t really remember. The cat that I do remember is the Little Kitten of Death. That particular kitten is found by the twins; she comes in her ghostly attire into their home with ghastly consequences. Elspeth, not really dead as we would understand her to be, discovers certain skills she has. Certain abilities which could be construed as gifts. Until they are used for malice rather than kindness.
Her Fearful Symmetry is the symmetry between twins, to be sure, but also between mothers and daughters. Aunts and nieces. The line between the living and the dead.
(Thus ends my final read for the RIP VI. It was quite an interesting one, a truly haunting story which I won’t soon forget.)

The Night Bookmobile

I sat with my son at Barnes and Noble this afternoon; it’s one of our favorite things to do together. We’ve drunk coffee, written in leather journals, and sat reading silently across the table from each other for almost twenty years.

As I perused the fiction aisles, with only gift cards to Borders in my pocket, I saw Audrey Niffenegger’s visual book, The Night Bookmobile. As eerie as you would suspect from someone who wears mahogany lipstick without mascara, calls Chicago home, and can credit The Time Traveler’s Wife to her imagination, this story is about a girl who encounters the bookmobile at four o’clock one morning while wandering from Irving Park to Ravenswood.

Inside, is every book she’s ever read.

But, she’s not allowed to be a librarian there because it’s only for the living…

In the After Words, I found this passage:

When I began writing The Night Bookmobile, it was a story about a woman’s secret life as a reader. As I worked it also became a story about the claims that books place on their readers, the imbalance between our inner and outer lives, a cautionary tale of the seductions of the written world. It became a vision of the afterlife as a library, of heaven as a funky old camper filled with everything you’ve ever read. What is this heaven? What is it we desire from the hours, weeks, lifetimes we devote to books? What would you sacrifice to sit in that comfy chair with perfect light for an afternoon in eternity, reading the perfect book, forever? ~Audrey Niffenegger