31 Days of Halloween: Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger and the Question of Identity

Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry is a story about two sets of twin sisters: Julia and Valentina Poole, and Elspeth Noblin and her sister, Edie Poole, mother to the younger twins.

After Elspeth dies of cancer, Julia and Valentina move from their home in Chicago into their aunt’s apartment in London, a place that overlooks Highgate Cemetery. They had never known their aunt, since their mother and their aunt had remained estranged for most of the girl’s lives, but they soon realize that though she is dead, Elspeth is not necessarily gone. They meet the eccentric Martin, an OCD agoraphobic creator of crossword puzzles, and Elspeth’s former lover, the younger Robert, and try to decipher whether or not Elspeth is truly haunting them or if it is their imagination.

What drives the girls is what drove their mother and aunt, and, Niffenegger implies, drives most twins. That beyond their closeness and all their similarities, these are people driven to search for their own identity. There is evidence in the story that Edie and Elspeth have failed to completely disentangle their identities, and that Julia and Valentina threaten to repeat their fate. This makes what drives the girl’s so desperate. As one tries to hold on to their sameness, the other pulls away, till, inspired by the ghost of her aunt, Valentina concocts a dangerous plan to forever pull away from her sister.

Crafting characters like twins in fiction can be a slippery slope. Charles Dickens entertained the trope, as did Mark Twain, but if an author is not careful, the characters can be muddled together. Casting the central protagonists as twins is dangerous for an author, but Niffenegger deftly pulls off creating different identities for Julia and Valentina. Things get a bit more convoluted with Edie and Elspeth, and at the climax of the novel, one might need to take copious notes to follow the consequences of the big twist, but an understanding of what has happened will make the subsequent events all the more heartbreaking, and will cast a devious light on a character once perceived as sad and desperate.

At the heart of this novel is Highgate Cemetery , a very real place in London. It is evident that Niffenegger researched the historical landmark extensively while crafting her story, but only because she brings to life on the page this vast collection of monuments to the reposed. If research is needed for the crafting in the story, evidence of it is best pushed far back, so that the revelation of the information is presented naturally as the story unfolds and is delivered in the narrator’s voice, not as bleak quotes from a text book. Niffenegger, who lives in Chicago, even admits to working at Highgate Cemetery for a time, immersing herself in the world she creates for her readers. Follow the link at the beginning of this paragraph to visit the real cemetery and learn all about it.


I was tempted to write about English craft beers, but decided that since Chicago sits as a backdrop for our characters, I’d introduce you to Chicago’s own Beer College . I had the fortune of touring the college myself, after a disappointing turn in Milwaukee, where I hoped to redeem my adventure to the heights of the grandeur of Seattle’s Pike’s Place Market. I met an administrative guide who only had a passing knowledge of the Siebel family, the founders of the college. I told him how the recently passed Bill Siebel – childhood friends with my stepfather – was an amateur ornithologist. I told him about how Bill and his wife visited my stepfather in Arkansas, years before cancer stole both men from this earth. They loved to watch the eagles.

I sat later in a corner bar in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood behind the yards, sipping on a pint of Miller Lite, thinking about ghosts. The book I’d read had ghosts. Plenty of them. My stepfather and Bill Siebel were now just memories … ghosts. If I think real hard I can still hear them talk about the eagles. I can see Bill’s face. I can hear my stepfather’s infectious laugh, his soothing voice – his “radio” voice – he was a DJ for part of his music career.

I can feel the regulars’ eyes on me. The bartender who’s served me can offer them no answers as to who I am. I am white in this still segregated city in a neighborhood more accepting then others, and that is all I’ve got going for me in this Irish Catholic bar. I’m not Irish Catholic. I wouldn’t have dared walk into a neighborhood bar on the Garfield Boulevards and asked for a drink. Still, I’m not known, and so my time even here is limited. We only drink with who we know. I return to my hotel and I know I should write more about the Siebel Institute of Technology, but the ghosts have bogged me down along with the beer. Still, I suppose, I owe my meager readership something.


Not long after I met the man who would become my stepfather, I met a childhood friend of his from when he attended Admiral Farragut Academy in Tampa, Florida. Bill Siebel was an affable man, skinny with dark, wavy hair and thick spectacles. When my baby brother was born, Bill and his wife visited again and introduced him to bird watching. They needn’t work in the day-to-day, because Bill had inherited his family business, one of the few beer colleges in the country.

The Siebel Institute is located in downtown Chicago, and has for the last 140 years brought the art of brewing to countless students from over sixty countries. Founded by John E. Siebel in 1868, a German immigrant, the institute offers a multitude of programs in the craft of brewing, and is an esteemed and reputable institution still churning out brew masters to this day. I once entertained the idea of attending the school, but I must relegate myself to writing about it now. You can click on the Beer College link above to be directed straight to the website, where you can also find Youtube videos, Facebook links, and learn more about the college, its programs and its histories.



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