I came to Niffenegger the traditional way: through Time Traveler’s Wife and followed her down a twisty road to Her Fearful Symmetry. Both novels are commendable (and one has been reviewed by our very own Shaun) but different from Niffenegger’s other books that are out: The Three Incestuous Sisters, The Night Bookmobile, The Adventuress, and Raven Girl. Of these, I own and have read The Three Incestuous Sisters and Raven Girl, but those of you looking for holiday gift buying (or general donations to my library) now know precisely what to get me. I was puzzled by The Three Incestuous Sisters after I ordered it; I had just devoured and adored Time Traveler and had chewed over Symmetry endlessly, and what I now had in my hands was nothing like these other books. Frankly, I still don’t know what the heck went on in The Three Incestuous Sisters which seemed like a really outside the box riff on the fairy tale “trinity” (everything in three’s) and the fairy tale motif of sisterhood which often gets bastardized through “evil step-sister” syndrome. Other than that, I got nothing—Niffenegger took me to such a very different universe that I didn’t know how to think about the story and was left with just the art, which is another riff on classic fairy tale illustration. The art—more than the story—had me going back to Sisters and trying to figure it out. Niffenegger does all her own illustrations and while these are labeled as “graphic novels” they are really art-house takes on that genre.
Having those experiences behind me, when Raven Girl was released, I knew I had to have it—I love ravens, modern storytelling, and I was still intrigued by Niffenegger’s original artwork enough to give the “graphic novel” a second try. I have to say, I loved and adored Raven Girl and it brought me back to that modern fairy tale with a twist that both Time Traveler’s Wife and Fearful Symmetry had toyed with on a grander scale.
Raven Girl is probably the shortest book I’ve read in a while and it was a delightful palette cleanser coming off the 850 page behemoth of Outlander (did you read that review? If not, find it here). It starts with a postman that reminds me eerily of Matthew Gray Gubler by both characterization and artistic influence—and as I like Gubler, I was fine with that relationship. Niffenegger kept herself in fairy tale format and really paid homage to the traditions (there once was a ______ who lived in a _______). Our postman has the characteristics of a lot of fairy tale leads: he doesn’t quite fit in the normal world and we guess that something extraordinary has to come in and change that around. He gets the assignment one day to deliver a letter to a raven’s nest and as he’s doing so, sees a baby raven on the ground. He asks the raven if it’s injured because it isn’t flying back to the nest, and it tells him no, but since he doesn’t speak bird he can’t understand it and takes the bird home to nurture it. Naturally, as the other baby ravens haven’t been exposed to a postman before, they tell their parents that their sister was carried off by a cat (they had been warned about cats at length).
The ease with which Niffenegger tells the story has me believing that ravens get post—and that’s what good modern fairy tales do to the jaded, tech-ed out reader. I didn’t skip a beat when the baby raven grew up and got attached to the postman and they realized their love for each other and got married. I didn’t blink when we jump-cut to a strangely large spotted egg being warmed and fussed over in their tiny little kitchen. And I certainly didn’t mind when a girl, who spoke raven and desperately wanted to fly, found that human arms really aren’t designed for it.
Fairy tale is a difficult genre because of the huge leaps of logic you have to make without being uncomfortable making. For example, I can’t get too stressed out about how precisely a human and a raven make an egg—I just have to go with it and believe it. If authors fuss over details or ignore them too much, the reader can feel like they’ve been left in the lurch trying to tie together pieces of a very wonky puzzle without enough information. Niffenegger joins my little modern-day fairy tale pantheon with Gaiman and new-comer Morgenstern who have the ability to tap into classic fairy tale techniques but have this unfathomable ability to bring it to a 21st century reader. Raven Girl holds her own in this category and Niffenegger’s haunting art only highlights the melancholy of our Raven Girl, who is caught between two worlds and lacking the skills to pick a side.
With Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffenegger played with modern medicine, intertwining it with science fiction and magic in a believable way. The mere presence of modern science challenges this form of storytelling and you can either address it or work around it (Gaiman, notably, works around it more than he works with it). But Niffenegger finds a way to combine medicine and fantasy in a way that makes both more believable—it harkens back to early science fiction writers predicting modern technology. In Raven Girl, Niffenegger poses a scientist who can make animal-human hybrids (purely for aesthetic reasons, of course) and the Raven Girl finds him in order to get her wings. His presence, his ability to make scientific hybrids, makes the naturally occurring hybrid of the Raven Girl suddenly a matter of fact; nothing strange at all. His ability to also help her pick a side in her constant battle between human and bird is likewise an anchor weighing the story in reality—though I won’t tell you which side, as it would spoil the ending of the book.
Like Fearful Symmetry, I had problems with Niffenegger’s ending as it’s non-standard, but I can’t fault her with choosing to continue the theme of challenging genre and expectation. I may want something more cookie-cutter from her but if she was cookie-cutter, she wouldn’t be her. I think Niffenegger needed a book like Time Traveler’s Wife to get her into the mainstream readership she needed to sustain artsy projects like Raven Girl, which I don’t think is going to top any major retailer’s best-sellers list. Niffenegger is seemingly steering away from traditional formats for the time being and sticking with her graphic novels and art books. If you haven’t tried them out for fear of how different they are, you are truly missing out on a multi-sensory experience.
Audrey Niffenegger is an American writer and artist who is currently a professor of creative writing in Chicago. She embraces odd and unique narrative structures and is currently working on a new novel (no release date yet announced). Audrey Niffenegger’s webpage can be found here, where all of her latest appearances are tracked.