Audrey Niffenegger

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The allure of cemeteries

Last week I wrote about the now much easier way of going back in our family’s history, thanks to the technology available to us. For all that, there is still a fascination with the physical memory of a person’s life which a gravestone represents. In most cases, this is primarily of interest to that person’s family and friends, those who knew the individual personally and for whom there was and remains a direct emotional connection.

In some cases, such as Highgate cemetery in London, there are memorials to people who have had a much larger impact on the world. I have yet to make it to Highgate, mainly because it is not easy to get to, but one of these days we will get to Karl Marx’s grave.

Audrey Niffenegger’s book (she of The Time Traveller’s Wife fame) Her Fearful Symmetry is set around Highgate cemetery and, as you would probably hope, contains a mixture of what we would regard as the real world, and the supernatural which we might associate with cemeteries in fiction. The book took me a couple of times to get into. It happens. Sometimes because I am distracted by something else, sometimes because I am reading too many things concurrently, sometimes because the book just isn’t my thing (not the case here!)

The story is of two American twins who inherit their aunt’s house overlooking the cemetery. The only condition of their inheritance is that they have to live there for a full year. The twins have never lived apart and one theme of the novel is the extent to which they can, or want to, change this and become independent of each other. Both twins form a relationship with the two men who live in the same building, one romantic (with the former lover of the aunt who left them the house) and one more of a caring friendship. And then the supernatural element comes in. (If you want to read the book, skip to the next paragraph – spoiler alert). The girls’ aunt Elspeth is indeed dead, but she is currently an invisible ghost trapped in the apartment. Valentina, the younger and weaker of the twins, begins to sense Elspeth’s presence and later to see her. When Valentina discovers that Elspeth has the ability to scoop out a person’s soul and put it back again, she thinks she has found a way to break free of the stifling relationship with her twin which has defined her life. And that’s as far as I will go with the story – if you want to know what happens and what secrets the family has been hiding for decades, you will have to read the book. I loved it. And the ending is beautiful. As is the ending in The Time Traveller’s Wife (if you have only seen the film of that book, forget the ending, it’s wrong, wrong, wrong!). I tend to cry at the end of her books. And find myself rereading the last few pages now and again.

Karl Marx might be one of the most famous Germans and a celebrity resident of Highgate, but Berlin has its own cemetery where a number of the great and the good from different walks of life are now gathered together. Seeing some of the graves is like walking through the story of Germany and of Berlin. I went armed with a mental list of all the ‘people’ I wanted to see, and managed to find almost all of them despite the lack of any kind of map and the impending darkness of a Berlin evening.

Bertolt Brecht needs little introduction, but I gained a different view of him – and of Anna Seghers, who was previously unknown to me – from reading another novel, Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin.

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We also have philosophers…

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…one of the men who built Berlin (it took me ages to find this one!) …

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…and a pastor who saw that the challenge of Jesus is to act and take a stand, not to stand by and wait for a miracle.

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And just so you know, this is what I want for a gravestone. Just not for a while, I hope.

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Symmetry

I’ve seen a few beautiful photos recently which use reflections in water – lakes or even puddles – to create a symmetry in the picture that always captures my attention. And this week, I had two very different experiences of symmetry.

The first was finishing Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. It’s part ghost story, part love story, and part about twins. There are, in fact, two set of twins, between two generations. Something happened a long time ago with the twins of the older generation that nobody else seems to know about, including the twins’ husband or partner. When one of them dies, she leaves her house in London to the twin daughters of her (twin) sister. These two younger twins, Valentina and Julia, are symmetrical – everything is reversed between them both. So where one has her heart on the left, the other has hers on the right. And they are inseparable. But living in London for the first time, they find that what they want is about to diverge and they don’t know how to deal with that. There are a number of narratives going on at the same time, with some peculiar characters which just seem to work (making mental notes about this – I’ve forgotten some of the details of the plot already, but not the characters). And I think there is also a kind of symmetry going on in the overall plot, with people growing apart and coming back together again and vice versa. If I were a literary critic, I think I would have a proper look at that. I had read mixed reviews of the book, but it worked for me.

The second symmetry this week was entirely visual. Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens held a  light show which used their already beautiful grounds as the backdrop for a light, and at some points sound, show which allowed visitors not only to watch, but to play as well, changing the colour of the light being cast onto trees and buildings so that the effect was constantly changing.

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We loved the harp in its position of prominence!

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The artificial lighting gave some lovely effects – the camera picks up the colours differently from the human eye.

There were also some shows with water and light features, and it was the finale which made the whole event for me (that and the ability to buy a hot chocolate half way round – it was freezing when we were there). The water was calm and the sky totally clear (hence the cold) so the reflection and symmetry were just beautiful. Here’s a taster of the symmetry:

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Purity in name only

Despite the fact that I have literally piles of books upstairs which I want to read, I still found myself standing in the library and seeing a book that I thought I would just have a quick look at while the girls were looking for something to borrow. But this one was right at the front, and it was big. And it was by Jonathan Franzen and I had had in the back of my mind for a while that I should read his book “Freedom” because it created a stir for some reason, although I still couldn’t tell you what it was for. This one was new though, “Purity“, and the back cover told me enough – it had parts set in East Germany. So that was a “go straight to the top of the reading list”. I’ve come across a few books set there recently, none so far very satisfying although Douglas Kennedy’s “The Moment” is an exception, and he’s one of my writing heroes, not only because he’s the only writer who’s managed to get me to start yelling out loud at a character.

But back to “Purity”. I will start with a warning. If you believe that others should live by your personal moral code, and that writers should only create and work with characters who share the same values as you, you should not read this book. Just stop now. This is not for you.

If you want to know what this novel “means”, look elsewhere. For me, it’s about a bunch of characters and their stories. They connect, both the characters and their personal stories, and that’s the first thing that is done really well. At one point, however, I started to think the level of coincidence was just too great and had tipped into the incredulous. But then I realised that the seemingly disparate stories are all connected and that we are actually observing a story over generations through multiple perspectives, each adding something to the others, none of them having all the facts or context.

And it is in this way that a debt-laden American girl called Pip, her reclusive and bizarre mother, an accidental East German dissident hero, Andreas Wolf, who has turned himself into a cross between Edward Snowden and Julian Assange and lives in Bolivia, and a Colorado-based editor of a newspaper all tell their stories. And we start to see that what they are experiencing is far from a succession of random events, but a combination of the consequences of choices they have made in the past and of what is driving them now. None of which is simple, just as none of us in real life are simple creatures.

Each of the character’s individual stories could just about stand alone. They could certainly make wonderful character sketches. We know what they want – Pip wants to know who her father was and her mother refuses to tell her or give her any information which could help Pip. What Andreas wants changes – girls, fame, to be a hero? I don’t think he knows himself.

I think it is the intersection of the stories and the overarching narrative which makes the book’s length both justified and necessary for me. Franzen brings out the complexity, absurdness and often hilarity of human beings. We start to think about who the characters really are, who they think they are, and who they portray themselves as to others, none of which is simple and certainly not consistent. And that means that the characters grow closer to each other at times, then more distant, and we are as perplexed by this as the character whose voice we are hearing at the time. Only later when we have another character’s perspective does much of make sense and seem inevitable. And of course we go through life only seeing our perspective or what other people choose to share of theirs, so the story feels very real.

I loved the writing itself. It felt like a demonstration of how to write fiction. Strong characters that you would hate in real life but love in a novel. Clever plot which reveals itself slowly but relentlessly. And lovely images throughout. Not just at the beginning when you expect that, but right the way through. Here’s one short passage from very close to the end (it doesn’t give anything away) on rain:

The cabin was dark. Inside it was the sound of her childhood, the patter of rain on a roof that consisted only of shingle and bare boards, no insulation or ceiling. She associated the sound with her mother’s love, which had been as reliable as the rain in its season. Waking up in the night and hearing the rain still pattering the same way it had when she’d fallen asleep, hearing it night after night, had felt so much like being loved that the rain might have been love itself. Rain pattering at dinner. Rain pattering while she did her homework. Rain pattering while her mother knitted. Rain pattering on Christmas with the sad little tree that you could get for free on Christmas Eve. Rain pattering while she opened presents that her mother had put aside money for all fall.

I loved the book. And promptly ordered “Freedom”. Which has joined the piles upstairs as I am currently reading “Her Fearful Symmetry” by Audrey Niffenegger (think “The Time Traveler’s Wife” – wonderful book, pity they ruined the film by changing the one part of the book that made me cry – I sat through the entire film waiting for the ending… and it wasn’t right. Read the book. I cried just explaining to the girls how the story actually ended, so all was not lost with the film.) This book has been recommended by Stephen King – there is a list of such books which will keep me busy for a while, but you can’t ignore the ones he says are worth reading, can you?