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Wednesday, March 17,2010

Cemetery Symmetry

Death is only the beginning of the story in a Niffenegger novel

by Bill Castanier

The ubiquitous coffeeshop may be the location of choice for writers, but Audrey Niffenegger finds more solace and inspiration in a cemetery. And it has served her well.


Niffenegger and her writing are known for unusual goings on. Take her first book, “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” which put an unusual twist on H.G. Welles’ literary trope of time-travel. A young couple, Clare and Henry, meet, fall in love and marry. That’s where the tradition ends and Niffenegger’s imagination begins.


The husband in the relationship has an unusual genetic characteristic in that he travels back and forward in time — and not voluntarily.


As you might imagine, this can make for some unusual situations as Henry may meet Clare as a young girl or even another reiteration of himself. It is truly the story of true love waiting.


Many Michiganians were attracted to the book since identifiable locations in western Michigan play a role in the book. Niffenegger was born in South Haven and still has an uncanny sense of the locale.


The book was a phenom on best-seller lists and was turned into a movie last year. The book earned Niffenegger comparisons to Austen and Shelley and a $4 million advance for her newest book, “Her Fearful Symmetry,” which once again has an unusual plot line and a setting that enables Niffenegger to weave in one of her favorite locations, London’s Highgate Cemetery. Karl Marx, for one, makes his final home there.


In Niffenegger's eyes, cemeteries are not seen as scary places: They tell unusual stories, and so can the author, as she weaves a tale of the untimely death of a twin sister who conveniently leaves her estate to her twin nieces who — in order to inherit — must live for one year in the flat across from Highgate.


Granted, this is a B-moviestyle literary trope but it’s one that works with Niffenegger’s accomplished writing (and suspension of disbelief).


It almost goes without saying the dead sister has not left the building. The cast of characters is unusual and gothic in comparison, exhibiting advanced stages of compulsion and obsession both in love and life.


Niffenegger is not an apologist and borrows heavily from Victorian literature but with the devilish spirit of Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman. Both books have more than a tinge of romance tucked into them, but that does not detract from the complexities of Niffenegger’s overall writing.


There also is a lot of fun in these books, especially in “Symmetry,” in which long-buried secrets collide with “The Parent Trap” and mistaken identity. The comings and goings of spirits help lead to you uncovering the underlying mystery and the tormented twin who can not rest. The books draw heavily on Niffenegger’s own love of artfulness. First and foremost Niffenegger is a visual artist who has created sumptuous, oneof-a-kind books combing art and the written word in unusual forms. She has carried over that feeling to her books, especially “Symmetry.”


In her personal life, the author loves cemeteries and collects taxidermy and old medical textbooks in her Chicago home. So it wasn’t unusual for her to weave librarians and book collectors into her books.


What’s next for Niffenegger? Lansing area residents will find out during her appearance 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 23, at the Holt Junior High School. Although tickets are free, you must get them in advance from Capital Area District Library. They are available at any of the branches, or by calling (517) 367-6355.


Audrey Niffenegger


7 p.m. Tuesday, March 23
Holt Junior High School 1784 Aurelius Rd. Free, but tickets must be
picked up in advance from Capital Area District Library (517) 367-6355
www.cadl.org

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