In The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger married her gently wry sensibility to a classic science-fiction conceit, and the result became a literary sensation — as much a tried-and-true staple of book-club culture as cheap malbec.
Now, with Raven Girl, Niffenegger sets out to create a new fairy tale bearing the form's alchemical mix of light with dark, wish fulfillment with foreboding, bright fantasy with flat-out creepiness. The slim volume — 80 pages, including a score or so devoted to moody etchings by the author — was Niffenegger's contribution to a project with the Royal Ballet, in London; the resident choreographer asked her to produce a fairy tale that he would incorporate into a new dance.
Raven Girl adopts a narrative voice that will be familiar to anyone who's ever been read a bedtime story ("Once there was a Postman who fell in love with a Raven"), but Niffenegger wastes little time establishing that these events take place in our modern world ("The Postman lived on the edge of a flat, desolate suburb"). This tonal contrast supplies much of the book's considerable humor, as characters sporting classic fairy tale designations — "the Raven," "the Boy," "the Doctor" — face situations that would stymie Hansel and Gretel, and react to them in ways more nuanced and ambiguous than the Brothers Grimm would ever permit.
A lonely Postman and a Raven fall in love and marry, sort of. They have a child, a girl who looks human on the outside but who knows herself to be a Raven in her soul. She struggles to navigate the world of school and college until the day she meets the Doctor who, she fervently hopes, can give her the wings she's always wanted.
Niffenegger deftly modulates the degree to which contemporary trappings find their way into her tale. Where magical transformations abound in classic fairy tales, the transformation at the heart of Raven Girl employs a more prosaic but no less miraculous sort of wizardry, as the Doctor describes to his patient while showing her slides on his computer:
"The images showed ... similarities between wing bones and arm bones. How the wing might attach to the shoulder; the muscles and tendons that must serve new purposes. The stem cells that must be reprogrammed to grow wings rather than arms. The sequence of surgeries: amputations, attachments. Neurons must be trained to fire, nerves must be rerouted. The brain must recognize the new wings, the immune system must not reject them."
Yet earlier in the tale, Niffenegger is considerably (and mercifully) more circumspect with respect to the biological particulars of, say, human/avian congress. The Postman and the Raven pledge their love, and after a discreet page break, the text politely informs us that "The egg was greenish-bluish with brown speckles."
Niffenegger's somber-hued illustrations underscore the book's singular "Stories for Weird Children" tone. And here again, her tonal duality asserts itself: She draws humans with a childlike looseness, presenting them as cartoonish, squiggly figures, but depicts the book's ravens with an exacting, even slightly obsessive level of detail. Their black, expressionless eyes glisten like cave pools; the feathers on their wings seem to undulate with mysterious intent.
One may quibble that Niffenegger's heroine seems passive, content to be the object of her own story as opposed to its subject, and that the book's fairy-tale ending, when it arrives, seems a hasty one. But Raven Girl, like the sad creature at its center, lingers in the memory: odd, quiet, more than a little unsettling, but strangely, even hauntingly, beautiful.