Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

16th May 2013

Raven Girl Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger‘s latest book Raven Girl marks yet another stage of the best-selling author and artist’s creative development. Although she’s already produced two ‘novels-in-pictures’ – The Three Incestuous Sisters (2005) and The Adventuress (2006), as well as the graphic novel The Night Bookmobile (2010) – Niffenegger remains best-known for her 2003 novel The Time Traveller’s Wife.

Best read as a dystopian fairy tale for adults, Raven Girl most closely resembles a children’s storybook that tells a gothic story with decidedly adult themes.

In fact, the story is an illustrated telling of the plot of the ballet Niffenegger has collaborated upon with Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet. (The ballet will be staged at the Royal Opera House in May and June this year, if you’re interested in seeing it).

...a children’s storybook that tells a gothic story with decidedly adult themes The book tells the dark story of a raven who falls in love with a postman, begetting them a human daughter who feels she would be more suited to life as a bird. The plot is obviously closely modelled on very early versions of fairy tales, as well as on classical ballets.

The earliest versions of Cinderella had Cinders’ step-mother sawing off her biological daughters’ toes in order to make their feet fit into the glass slipper, while ballets such as Swan Lake and Ondine saw human protagonists transform into animals or fall in love with mythological creatures or enchanted animals.

In apparent tribute to the historic origins of the better-known fairy tales and ballets, Niffenegger (who holds an MFA in Printmaking and Drawing) has used the seventeenth-century technique of aquatinting – which uses metal, acid, wax and rosin to achieve a delicate tone and detailed images.

In truth, it’s not the most beautiful book you’ll ever hold in your hands. It’s too grey in colour and tone for that, and the story nods to themes that may disturb some readers: the myth of the chimera, the exploitation of vulnerable people by cosmetic surgeons, and of course inter-species love affairs all appear within the pages of this short book. Indeed, for many, it may work better as a companion to the ballet, rather than on its own.

That said, Raven Girl is bound to be a hit with fans of Niffenegger’s other illustrated works, as well as those who love the gothic genre in general. It’s quite an achievement to be able to create a modern fairy tale – let alone a ballet – that works as a comment on the foibles of modern society while still nodding to the tropes of both fairy tales and ballet. Niffenegger, who has long since been known for the dark eccentricity of her work, has now achieved both.

Raven Girl was published by Jonathan Cape on 2nd May and is available in paperback/hardback from Foyles, Amazon and your local independent bookshop, priced at £16.99.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Fans of fairy tales and the gothic genre.

Other recommended reading: The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, 101 Stories of the Great Ballets by George Balanchine, Three Incestuous Sisters by Audrey Niffenegger and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Alisande Fitzsimons