New Niffenegger novel set in Victorian Valhalla

LONDON (AP) - September 29, 2009

Niffenegger - who was propelled to literary stardom by her best-selling novel "Time Traveler's Wife" - is telling a group of tourists about one of the most colorful characters to end up in the Victorian burial ground, the menagerist George Wombwell, who died in 1850 and now lies in a tomb underneath a giant stone lion.

Niffenegger spent years researching the fabled London cemetery for her book - the final resting place for such luminaries as novelist George Eliot, actor Ralph Richardson, physicist Michael Faraday and poet Christina Rossetti, as well as Marx and a handful of Dickenses.

Now she's so familiar with it that she can guide tourists around with professional ease.

The labyrinth of Egyptian sepulchers, Victorian mausoleums, gravestones and Gothic tombs, perched on a hill above the smoke and filth of London, seems the perfect setting for a ghost story about a woman who dies of cancer and returns to haunt her lover and twin nieces.

But Niffenegger, who has developed a cult following for her lushly romantic tales of love, loss and obsession, originally had a less storied place in mind - a huge graveyard outside her hometown Chicago called Graceland.

"At the time I remember thinking: Graceland's fantastic, but if you're going to have a cemetery what's the great cemetery? And that would be Highgate," she said, recalling the days when the idea for the novel first came to her in 2002.

"I was always interested in the Victorian and Edwardian period, and Highgate is such a beautifully concentrated and unusual Victorian place."

The mythical pull of Highgate - where the spirits of the Victorian age seem to whisper around every corner - lies at the heart of "Her Fearful Symmetry." The book begins with the death of Elspeth Noblin at the age of 44, and the subsequent arrival of her American identical nieces to her apartment.

Noblin writes on her deathbed: "A bad thing about dying is that I've started to feel as though I'm being erased. Another bad thing is that I won't get to find out what happens next."

But Elspeth - who also has an identical twin sister - does get to find out: Her spirit remains in the apartment, which borders the cemetery, hiding in the drawer of a desk, and gradually learns how to haunt.

"The novel is about grief, about couples coming together, coming undone, or who seem to be together but will later come undone ... and there are other couples who are reforming, so it's kind of an exercise in symmetry, doubling, twinning, opposites and dark sides," said the 46-year-old Niffenegger, unmistakable in her flowing red hair, ghostly pallor and brainy glasses.

She said many of the cameos in the novel are sewn from the years she spent researching the cemetery, which opened in 1839, and even volunteering there as a tour guide.

Two of those characters are based on the former chair of the charity that looks after the grounds, Jean Pateman, 88, and her husband, John.

On her tours - as in her book - Niffenegger, takes visitors into the gothic wilderness beyond: tombs, graves, catacombs, and mausoleums, many topped by statues of angels.

To the south of this day's tourist group, at the end of a path that weaves fairytale-like through rain-battered graves, unkempt shrubbery, wild flowers and trees, is the tomb of the pre-Raphaelite Rossetti - whose melancholy verses about love and regret - hold particular resonance for Niffenegger.

"What's great about (Highgate) is it really is like a narrative. It sort of unfolds and you can't see very far ahead so you stop them periodically and let them look around and talk about whatever it is that you are standing in front of."

Niffenegger isn't alone among today's premier novelists to have been inspired by Highgate. Tracy Chevalier - author of "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" - set her 'Falling Angels" in the cemetery and calls it "the perfect setting" for a novel.

"Maybe writers are drawn to it because it provides a complete atmosphere - gothic, overgrown, steeped in death - that you don't have to make up. You can just go there and describe what you see," she said in an email interview.

"You can walk around and be quite alone and hidden. I think novelists like secret places, because we are secretive ourselves."

In "Her Fearful Symmetry," Niffenegger once again returns to her favorite themes of love, loss, and identity.

"They seem to run all through my art, not just these last two books but the artwork that I've worked on for the past 27 years, so it seems to be somehow intrinsic to what I think about. I'm not saying that I could never write about anything else, but they seem to get in there without any great effort on my behalf."

Niffenegger, also a successful artist and author of two acclaimed graphic novels, won't comment on media reports that she signed a US$4.5 million publishing deal for the new book.

She is now working on her third novel. Set in Chicago, it's about a 9-year-old girl with hypertrychosis - excessive body hair - and has the working title "The Chinchilla Girl in Exile."

She is also planning a show at her Chicago gallery a year from now - "and somehow while I'm running around I have to make some drawings," she says.

"Her Fearful Symmetry" publisher Random House declined to disclose the novel's print run.

While "The Time Traveler's Wife" has its soundtrack set firmly in the 1980s British and U.S. punk and rock scene, "Her Fearful Symmetry" has traveled a bit further back in time for its opening quote, from the Beatles song "She Said She Said."

"I originally wanted to use a lyric from "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder, but ended up using just the one Beatles' lyric from the album "Revolver," she explains.

Later, sitting in a local rustic pub a short walk from the cemetery, Niffenegger bursts into the song:

"She said, I know what it's like to be dead ... I know what it is to be sad. And she's just making me feel like I've never been born," she sings.

"It would be terrible spoiler for me to tell you why that's an apt quote," she adds with a twinkle in her eye.

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