One thing is for sure: Highgate Cemetery is on my list of places to visit next time I’m in London. Old cemeteries are amazing places, two of my favorites are Glasgow’s Necropolis and Savannah’s Bonaventure. Have you visited?
(Highgate – photo from here)
In this book Highgate is almost like a character in its own right. Most of the action is set in an apartment building which shares a wall with the cemetery and one of the main characters is a tour guide there, so you’re treated to great stories and curiosities. With this background, Niffenegger tells not so much a modern ghost story, as a modern fairy tale.
Once upon a time there were two beautiful twin sisters – Elspeth and Edith – who mysteriously fall out and are estranged for many years on different continents. Twenty years later, one of them is diagnosed with terminal cancer, so they start to corresponding by letter.
When Elspeth dies, she leaves behind a heartbroken boyfriend and an apartment in London, which she gives to her two nieces, also twins – Valentina and Julia – on the condition that they never let their mother or father into the house. So the younger twins leave America and move to Elspeth’s apartment which turns out to be haunted by Elspeth herself. Above them lives Martin, a man who’s wife just left him because of his obsessive compulsory disorder and who designs cross-word puzzles for a living. Below, their late aunt’s boyfriend, Robert, the Highgate Cemetery tour guide who’s writing a thesis on its history and has a slight crush on one of its most famous dead: Elizabeth Siddal, Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s lover and inspiration for Millais’ famous Ophelia painting.
Isn’t it a great setting?
Her Fearful Symmetry was less tear-inducing than The Time Traveler’s Wife, but equally gripping. There’s this permanent aura of mystery and impending fate and the ghost might be the most realistic part of the story. Martin was especially fascinating because you get to be in his head and witness how OBD works:
The bed was an island. Around the bed was a sea of contamination. Martin had been crouching on the bed for four hours. Luckily there were survival tools there in bed with him: the telephone, some bread and cheese, his worn copy of Pliny. Martin wanted very much to leave the bed. He needed to pee, and he was hoping to get some work done today. His computer sat waiting for him in the office. But somehow Martin sensed, he knew, that there had been a hideous accident in the night. (…) Why? Martin wondered. Why does this always happen? Is this possible? No, it’s not real. But what can I do about it?
As if he had asked the question out loud, an answer came to him: Count backwards from a thousand, in Roman numerals. Touch the headboard while you do it. Of course! Martin began to comply, but faltered at DCCXXIII and had to start again. As he counted, he wondered, with a separate part of his brain, why this was necessary. He lost track again, started again.
Niffenegger was all about geometry in the this book, making good use of circles and parallels. The way the younger twins’ story circle back to the mysteries of their mother and aunt, Valentina and Robert falling in love, life becoming death becoming life, and history repeating itself. But she also draws a lot of parallels. The twins themselves are a perfect symmetry because Valentina’s body is a mirror of Julia’s, right down to a heart in the right side. Also, Martin is a prisoner in his apartment just like Elspeth’s ghost is in hers.
There’s Victorian Gothic elements galore in the book and Niffenegger is pretty unapologetic about using them, but always with a modern feeling to it. For instance, we witness the “birth” of Elspeth’s ghost and read about the expected translucidity and chilling drafts, but the descriptions are almost scientific. Elspeth is “gaining opacity gradually” and she goes of a row of trial-and-error attempts to figure out the laws of physics of her new state.
I wasn’t completely convinced about the last third of the book. The motivations and actions of the characters seemed a bit off-key somehow, especially the decision made by Valentina close to the end and Robert’s reaction to it. The twists weren’t that unexpected either. But still, it’s a good winter story and wonderfully narrated by Bianca Amato, who gets extra brownie points for her efforts reading the sentences in the story written in Dutch and Portuguese (Not bad for someone who doesn’t speak the language, but why Portuguese from Brazil?)
Here’s a beautiful little story within the story:
James said, “I saw a ghost once. […] I was quite small, only a lad of six. […] I remember lying there with the blanket pulled up to my chin, my mother kissing me goodnight, and there I was in the dark, not knowing what terrible thing might be ready to slink out from the wardrobe and smother me…”
Jessica smiled. Robert thought it might be a smile for the morbidly fantastical imaginations of children. “So what happened?”
“I fell asleep. But later that night I woke up. There was moonlight coming in through the window, and the shadows of the tree branches fell onto the bed, waving gently in the breeze.”
“And then you saw the ghost?” James laughed.
”Dear chap, the branches were the ghost. There weren’t any trees within a hundred yards of that house. They’d all been cut down years before. I saw the ghost of a tree.”