Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Another month over, and time for another ‘putting the fun in funeral’ post! This time I’m feeling literary again…

I must be the only person alive that hasn’t read ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ by now. I keep meaning to, but somehow I never have time to read much fiction or money for books which aren’t cemetery related these days. I have read ‘The Night Bookmobile’ her graphic novel, which was captivating, clever and heart-breakingly poignant. So when my dear friend Anya, thrust a copy of ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ into my hands, I was intrigued and mostly unconcerned that ‘it didn’t get amazing reviews’. She was determined that I had to read this one because of its setting.

her fearful symmetry

This is the novel which is set in Highgate Cemetery, a book I had been vaguely aware of for ages – I knew Audrey Niffenegger had worked there as a guide – even showing Mr Gaiman round when he came to do his own research for The Graveyard Book. I knew Her Fearful Symmetry had been mentioned with fondness by cemetery friends of mine, but somehow I never got round to seeking it out. Now I approached it cautiously – what events could possibly be taking place at Highgate in the book? Would the cemetery be treated with as much love and respect as my own fondness would necessitate?

I need not have worried – this book might not have been as critically acclaimed as her debut, but it might as well have been written for me. One of the main characters is even writing a thesis about the cemetery! From my solitary fieldwork, I immediately recognised the mood of the West Cemetery portrayed in the small hours and quiet moments. I could walk the path of the tour in my head – felt the same urge to tell more stories as the fictional guide. I was fascinated by every detail of the cemetery’s day to day operation – some things are unchanged, others obviously referring to the cemetery before some of the refurbishments and improvements I know – such as the work on the Anglican chapel and East Cemetery ticket kiosk. Audrey Niffenegger clearly loves Highgate as much as I do, I don’t think you could spend much time there without falling in love…

Still image taken from this guardian interview and video about Audrey Niffenegger's time at Highgate and the process of writing 'Her Fearful Symmetry'

Still image taken from Guardian interview with video about Audrey Niffenegger’s time at Highgate and the process of writing ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’

It wasn’t just the cemetery which captivated me with this book – it was the characters. Audrey Niffenegger creates wonderfully real people – with flaws and tangled relationships. The book is a ghost story – but a highly unusual one, focusing on life as much as death. The pace is wonderfully meandering for the vast majority of the book, something which suited me – I wanted to know every detail of their world. If I have to find a fault, it is that this pace is disrupted towards the end of the novel and the climatic events are painted more hurriedly and with less focus on emotion than I would have liked. Perhaps this is just as well though – I’m left wanting to know more, full of questions that linger and tease. The final chapter made me smile, although sadly, as it conjured just a shade of The Graveyard Book, feeling more like a new beginning than ‘The End’.

Audrey Niffenegger leaning on the Maple family grave, with George Wombwell's lion Nero in the background.  Taken from this USAtoday interview.

Audrey Niffenegger leaning on the Maple family grave, with George Wombwell’s lion Nero in the background.
Taken from this USA TODAY interview.


All that is left to say is thank you to Audrey for bringing the joy and beauty of Highgate cemetery to the wider world in a way I never could. And of course thank you to the lovely Anya Jung for insisting I read it.

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