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Estate agents once tried to talk my neighbourhood up - literally - by describing it as Lower Highgate. Highgate, famous for the Communist plot in which Karl Marx is buried, is uphill and up-market, and the agents fooled nobody. Nothing untoward has ever happened in Highgate, but if something did, for example Mr Jacqui Smith hosting an orgy in Pond Square, would it later be known as Highgategate?
In real life nothing untoward has happened - my losing an umbrella in The Flask hardly counts - but fiction is another story (well it would be). There's David Copperfield and Rosa Dartle, and more recently, Her Fearful Symmetry by the comically monikered Audrey Niffernegger. I had high hopes of this novel, having walked every inch of its setting, but was disappointing. American-born Sarah Churchwell didn't think much of it. From The Guardian:
Novels with unsympathetic characters need to offer the reader something else: a gripping plot, intellectual gravitas, stylistic delights, something to compensate for making you read 400 pages about people whom in real life you would cross the street to avoid. With the honourable exception of Martin, who emerges as a moving study of agoraphobia and OCD (although even his resolution feels rushed and unearned), Niffenegger relies on a series of increasingly contrived twists to resolve her baroque plot, up to and including suddenly having all the characters conclude that Valentina is suicidal – despite the fact that the narrative spends a great deal of time inside Valentina's head and we never witness a single suicidal thought. Nevertheless, the novel's entire resolution depends on the reader believing this abrupt announcement.
Other than Martin, the novel's most vivid character is Highgate Cemetery. Having decided to set her novel in it, Niffenegger worked there as a guide for a year. She learned her way convincingly around the cemetery, but she's less certain outside its gates. My favourite moment is when an English character announces "I'll be with you in a jim-jam", but I was also extremely surprised that Julia was able to find American chicken noodle soup at Tesco (trust me, it can't be done).
Instead of fabricating ghosts and faux-Englishmen, it's a shame that Niffenegger didn't just cut away all the cobwebby Halloween trappings and write a moving, realistic story about a man with OCD who is trapped for real, rather than ersatz, reasons in a flat overlooking a cemetery. She sustains a mood, but it is vaguely repellent, rather than enjoyably disquieting. Instead of a lingering, unforgettable ghost story, this is the novelistic equivalent of a cut-rate séance, a parlour game complete with Ouija boards and cheap theatrics, as unconvincing as knuckles rapping under tables.
The Americanisms, and there are many, bothered me less than they did Sarah Churchwell, because I have been English all my life and don't have the zeal of a convert. And the book is a page-turner - or in my case a Kindle-button-presser. The characters were irritating, though, and in the case of the young women, improbably passive and prim.
The Guardian is notorious for its misprints, and underneath Churchwell's review is the correction:
This article was amended on Thursday 22 October 2009. The character in Niffenegger's novel is Elspeth Noblin, not Goblin as we had it. This has been corrected.