Audrey Niffenegger’s ‘The Raven Girl’
I know I am not alone in my love of Niffenegger’s ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’. I remember thinking the premise of the story was thoroughly off putting: a time traveller, who falls in love, but has no control over his body when it decides to travel through time. It all sounded a bit 'Quantum Leap' for me, but I was so glad I persevered as it is easily now in my top ten reads. I had heard rumours of Niffenegger writing other books that included her own illustrations and so was very intrigued when I came across ‘The Raven Girl’, a gothic fairy tale about a girl who is half raven, half human. True to form, for me this was another off-putting introduction to a story, which captivated my interest even more.
The story is set in East of East, a desolate suburb that could be anywhere, although there is something about the Postman’s ethos that is distinctly English, perhaps it is the nightmares he has about email.
One day the postman, whilst delivering to a new address beneath a raven’s nest finds a female raven and, thinking her injured, takes her home and cares for her. They fall in love and one day she lays an egg which hatches to become a ‘raven girl’: immaculately human in every way apart from her voice, she can only crow and caw like a bird. She never learns to talk and can only communicate with her mother to whom she laments about her lack of wings. She grows up and her time comes to leave home to go to University to study biology. There she meets a doctor, a Frankenstine figure who specialises in transforming people and ‘improving’ them, giving women horns and men forked tongues. The raven girl convinces him to give her wings. However, a boy who has observed her in her classes notices her absence from university and tracks her down to the hospital where her transformation is taking place, with shocking and tragic consequences.
This short synopsis by no means summarises the story in its entirety but it does set the scene. At this point I intended to list the issues I had with the character development, or rather the lack of it and the fact the whole thing was simply too surreal for me. However, there was one huge factor to this story that I wasn’t aware of until the end which changed my entire interpretation completely.
The reason this story was written was not initially to be read, but to viewed by an audience, as it was danced before you on the stage. This book is the synopsis of a ballet written by Niffenegger for the Royal Opera House. At this point everything falls into place. The lack of flowing explanation throughout is no longer required. Immediately my mind was ignited as the characters, assisted with feathered puppetry, came alive and began to dance.
However, there is a very important element to this book that I have not yet touched on: the illustrations. For me, these charmingly simple aquatints (water colouresque etchings) are easily the best thing about this book and I keep going back to them. They are childlike in their style but still maintain artistic integrity. I am always a sucker for a book with pictures. I am a great believer that even if the story isn’t present, if there is good artwork then it is no time wasted. Is this judging a book by it’s cover? Of course, how else would the comic book industry, for example, survive if it wasn’t for an enticing front cover to make you pick the book up in the first place?
If you are a fan of Niffenegger’s work generally then I would say absolutely read this book. Once again her theme of the ‘super human’ and the doctor that assists in ‘fixing’ or rather helping them assimilate into our world is recurrent here.
If I could own this production though, I wouldn’t make it into a ballet, I would animate Niffenegger’s beautiful pictures.