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Review: Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

In a video posted on Facebook, Audrey Niffenegger admits that although a writer should keep learning new techniques - as she did for Her Fearful Symmetry, the much-anticipated follow-up to her international hit, The Time Traveler's Wife - the writer's preoccupations are likely to be less alterable: "What you have to say is what you have to say."

In much the same way as Martin, a scholarly crossword maker who is miserably imprisoned in his own flat by obsessive-compulsive disorder in this new novel, Niffenegger has her obsessions. They show up in the graphic books she originally printed in editions of 10 copies (such as The Adventuress, in which an alchemist's daughter turns into a moth and falls in love with a butterfly collector). They are made hauntingly visible in the surreally Gothic paintings, drawings and prints showcased on her website.

Her preoccupations include time and what it does to love. Death and ways of cheating it. Paired souls, whether younger women and older men, parents and children, or incestuously close sisters. Bizarre conditions and what they say about the limits of human life: Her third novel will be about a girl born covered with hair. Luckily, these are fascinating idées fixes , and Niffenegger writes fascinatingly about them.

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Although she lives in Chicago, on her visits to London, Niffenegger has an unusual volunteer job: She leads tours at Highgate Cemetery. This half-wild Victorian marvel prompted, and is at the heart of, Her Fearful Symmetry. (One of the best bits of trivia offered about the cemetery is that if you ever want to steal a flower for a bare tomb, try Radclyffe Hall's, which is permanently covered in fresh bouquets from her grateful lesbian fans.)

American "mirror twins" - not just identical, but with reversed organs - Julia and Valentina inherit their dead aunt Elspeth's flat in London, and get to know the two men who live in the same building: her friend Martin and her lover Robert, not only a guide at the cemetery but writing a thesis about it.

Robert frets: "But Elspeth wouldn't want me to spend the rest of my life mourning her. Would she?" That is the central question the novel poses: How far can - or should - love stretch?

Whether writing about the London Underground or the raising of the dead, Niffenegger is atmospheric without being conventionally spooky

Perhaps because of the weight of history and allusion that Highgate brings, Her Fearful Symmetry is a much more self-consciously literary book than its riveting, fast-paced predecessor, The Time Traveler's Wife. Niffenegger conceived this one as a Jamesian tale (à la The Portrait of a Lady) of New World ingénues encountering the Old.

Valentina and Julia also have to encounter the world of the dead (à la The Turn of the Screw), when they finally figure out that Elspeth has not left the flat.

Unlike any other author I know, Niffenegger can pull off the trick of talking about the paranormal in a concrete way. Just as in her first novel, the hero's helpless propensity to travel in time is entirely consistent and credible, for Her Fearful Symmetry, she has thought in a fresh, logical way about the possible realities of being a ghost. Elspeth, gradually "figuring out the rules" of an afterlife as energy rather than matter, can only perform delicate actions such as (how suitable!) turning the pages of a book.

Niffenegger is funny about the ghost's irritation with her own ignorance: "Most of her knowledge of the hard sciences came from quiz shoes and crossword puzzles." Robert and the manipulative Elspeth are the liveliest couple in this book of many couples. "YOU WANT ME TO HAVE A BODY?" she writes to him. "It's what I'm used to," he answers ruefully.

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Named for Blake's line about the tiger, "thy fearful symmetry," this novel is quirkily observed and rich on every level: plot, character, mood and theme. But the symmetries are everywhere, and therein lies a problem. The story of the twins (pale, tiny and mannered, always dressed in matching doll-like outfits) and their identical-twin mother and aunt feels very much like a literary device, especially when Niffenegger introduces two rather lurid switched-identity plot lines that pay homage to Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.

Martin's inability to leave his flat is too clearly a parallel to Elspeth's, and his longing to be reunited with his wife contrasts too neatly with Valentina's need to break free from the protective, domineering Julia:

"I'd rather be dead than spend my life with you," Valentina tells her presciently. All these characters are involving, but I could not help feeling that Niffenegger has brought them together in a building that backs onto Highgate Cemetery in order to say interesting things about love and death.

But she makes an unforgettable tour guide, anyway. Whether writing about the London Underground or the raising of the dead, Niffenegger is atmospheric without being conventionally spooky. "It's impossible to conjure the world without you," Elspeth writes to her twin Edie, "even though we've been apart so long."

The loneliness of apartness, the confinement of togetherness - Niffenegger broods on both in a way that is romantic without being sentimental. She conjures a memorable world, and grants most of her characters happy endings, though perhaps not the ones they would have asked for.

Emma Donoghue wants a good old-fashioned grave with a headstone. Slammerkin, her novel about an 18th-century murder (and a hanging), has just been reissued in paperback.

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