Audrey Niffenegger burst into literary prominance with her 2004 international bestseller The Time Traveler’s Wife, a hugely popular book that managed to combine a fantastical elements with a genuinely moving, human story. It was the best kind of fantasy, the kind that uses the impossible to powerfully illuminate the reality inhabited by us, its readers.
A movie followed, along with a much less lauded follow-up, 2010’s underwhelming Her Fearful Symmetry, which tried to duplicate the formula but failed. The magical element—a ghost this time—proved unable to give much life to a rather drab little story of a couple of sisters, livened up with a string of absurd plot twists.
Now Niffenegger is back with another take on the fantastic, and to her credit she is trying something new. An illustrated fairy-tale style storybook isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but for those willing to give it a try, Raven Girl has a certain appeal. The Time Traveler’s Wife it ain’t, and at just 77 pages of large text—nearly half of which are illustrations—the story can be easily consumed in less than an hour. Readers should know going in that this isn’t a big fat novel to get lost in, but rather a diverting trifle.
As diverting trifles go, it’s entertaining enough. The opening line provides all the setup anyone needs: “Once there was a Postman who fell in love with a Raven.” Niffenegger tells her story in plain, straightforward prose, with little attempt to embroider the impossible tale. This works to her advantage, as the subject matter is oddball enough without a heap of breathless description trying to get across just how magical everything is. In fact, in Niffenegger’s hands, the story seems at times rather un-magical. There are few magical realms here, and little whimsy apart from, y’know, talking birds and the occasional cat. Most of the action takes place in ordinary streets and school buildings, apartment blocks and hospitals.
The reader needs to be able to roll with the idea of human-avian romance, because it’s treated as an ordinary, everyday subject. “The Raven loved the Postman’s big goofy smile and ginger hair. She liked to ride on his shoulder and talk into his ear.” Readers who have difficulty with the logic of these sentences should probably skip this. As in most fairy tales, impossible things happen with no explanation.
This is doubly true for the offspring of this unlikely union, the titular Raven Girl herself. “The Raven Girl had a happy and perplexing childhood. She played odd games that involved hunting bugs and earthworms; she climbed trees and jumped out of them, hoping to fly but only crashing to the ground.” Neither properly a bird nor entirely human, she embodies elements of both and is thus trapped between worlds, and it is her striving to find her rightful place that forms the arc of this narrative. It’s not a terribly deep struggle, and it’s all resolved fairly quickly, as befits a fairy tale; but it is nonetheless the most significant conflict here.
Needless to say, the characterizations are paper thin. There is the Postman and the Raven, their offspring the Raven Girl, a Boy who develops some sort of feelings for her, and a couple of other characters (a doctor, a cat) and that’s about it. We learn little about these characters, which is typical of—stop me if I’ve said this before—a fairy tale. Characters exist to serve a function in the storyline, and not much more.
The illustrations are reflective of the story’s somber tone in their dull, even somewhat drab, color palette. Given the rather plotline and plain language of the story, the pictures are a crucial element in engaging and maintaining a reader’s attention. However, they are not terribly successful at this. Niffenegger has her own style, that’s for sure, but that style tends to be murky and unpleasant. Colors tend toward muddy browns, dull grays and vomitous greens, even at the end of the story, which resolves happily—a strange kind of visual dissonance. Her human figures, meanwhile, appear stiff and awkward. She has a difficult time drawing faces, especially noses, which is unfortunate; her renditions of crows are much more successful.
Raven Girl might appeal to readers with a fondness for the fantastic, which is likely Niffenegger’s core audience anyway. It might also be a good book for young-adult readers, or even those aged 10 or 12, as it is a thoughtfully and intelligently written story. Most grownups are going to find it pretty thin, however, and the illustrations—which should be a major selling point—are unlikely to draw in a lot of casual browsers.
As a place marker it’s fine, but let’s hope that the author gets back to the magic she was channeling a decade ago, and produces something else as immersive and moving as The Time Traveler’s Wife. Diverting as it is, Raven Girl isn’t that.