Posts Tagged ‘shaman’

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Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

April 11, 2010

This is a book that reminds us of what the function of literature is: the weaving of narrative into questions that relate the reader to the nature of being in the world.

Rather than succumb to the temptation to underwrite the complexities of love and death, Niffenegger is able to create a composition that may hold both reader and reality. The duality of symmetry and chaotic emotion is essential to this balance. The repetition of physical doubling does not imply neatness or psychological symmetry. Instead, we find that where death should bring peace, discord resonates.

A typical trope in literature that is graphically explored in the film noir genre is that doubling foretells death. It is as if the act of the individual witnessing itself is too much and the Self cannot handle so much actuality and must retire. Doubling is a process where the Self becomes the Other, who in turn returns to the Self.

The desire for the Self to be merged with the Other, or a love object, is familiar to all cultures across time. To become one, to be completed by love, to fully be consumed is the root of sex, but on in a larger sense directly related to our drive toward death. Death is that ultimate consumption, le petit mort of sex becomes a metaphor for the ultimate union that is all of our fates.

Niffenegger presents these topics in the relationship of the twins. At once the twins have what we all desire, to know another completely. But through their union, so are they destroyed by their desire for sex and love. The overshadowing of death is made uncomfortably clear when Valentina sees death and reincarnation as the solution to their dilemma.

In addition, something that is interesting to note and might not be commonly known is that while Niffenegger thoroughly researched Victorian burial rituals, she also put in her time learning about the afterlife. Her concept of death, and understanding of spiritual impetus are educated by scholars, channelers, and shaman who make it their business to perceive these realms. While I naturally cannot validate the authenticity of these perspectives, I can say that Niffenegger’s concept of the afterlife is grounded in a collective concept and not solely based on her own imagination. Having had my own studies lead me through many of these texts, it was fascinating to see Niffenegger navigate the concepts in a new, creative context.

This book was fabulously written, provocative and continues to resonate within my mind. Niffenegger’s balance of structure and content is true craftsmanship and I look forward to future endeavors. If you are looking for a more complete review of the literature you can check out the New York Times Book Review at the link listed below. A funny coincidence to the NYT review is that it is written by Susann Cokal, who taught at Cal Poly, SLO while I studied there:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/books/review/Cokal-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

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