Audrey Niffenegger’s Raven Girl is a slim book that straddles categories. I thought it would be a graphic novel. It isn’t, quite. At 75 pages, I’d call it an illustrated novella. Niffenegger, in her Acknowledgments, calls it a new fairy tale. It certainly has fairy tale aspects, especially a “happy ending” that arrives almost out of nowhere, but it goes beyond traditional fairy tales. The book, Niffenegger tells us, was based on a story she created for the Royal Ballet in London, for a new ballet. If I had to pick a word for Raven Girl, I might choose “fable.”
“There once was a Postman who fell in love with a Raven,” the story begins. The postman is middle-aged, lonely and bored. He knows every step of his route in suburban London, and “… yearned to have an adventure, but suspected that he probably wouldn’t.”
In this suspicion, he is wrong. The Postman gets a letter in his bag, to be delivered to Dripping Rock, Raven’s nest, in East Underwhelm, Otherworld, which sends him on a long walk into the countryside. There he finds a raven’s nest on a ledge, filled with noisy fledglings, and one fledgling that has fallen from the nest. He brings her home. The Raven is terrified at first (her brothers yelled to her from the nest that the Postman was a cat — they’d never seen a cat but heard bad things about them). She is prepared to be eaten, but soon is charmed by the Postman’s kindness and gentle ways. The Postman is delighted to have a companion who listens to him, and who talks, even though he is never sure if she is responding or just mimicking. When the Raven is ready to fly he carries her outside and she takes wing. He is sure she will leave him, but the Raven returns. Sure now of their love, the Raven and the Postman marry.
Soon they have a daughter. She looks completely human but will not speak the language of humans, only that of ravens. She wishes she could fly but she has arms and wings, not hands. The Raven tries to persuade her that hands are wonderful things, but Raven Girl is not satisfied.
Raven Girl goes away to the city, to university. Her father has told the college that she is mute, so she communicates by writing notes. Raven Girl longs to fly. She speaks to the city ravens, but they react with distrust because she is obviously human. When she builds a large nest in the middle of her bed, her human roommate thinks she is weird. Raven Girl is an outsider wherever she goes. Then a scientist comes to lecture her biology class and offers a possible solution. It might let Raven Girl fly, but it is very dangerous, and requires her to make a great sacrifice.
In the hands of a lesser stylist, this story could be a train wreck. The simplicity of the tale — common nouns capitalized to become names and so on — successfully re-creates the feeling of a folk tale or fairy tale, but in the second half of the story, Raven Girl’s story, the involvement of the modern world distracts from the story. Laptops and stem cells call the magical part of the story (Raven Girl’s parentage, for example) too much into question. The addition of a human boy, called Boy, who has a crush on Raven Girl is not well integrated into the tale, and his act of violence doesn’t seem well supported. It also seems understandable, and since this is the one villainous act in the story, that weakens his story and its consequences.
Niffenegger, though, is an artist with words as well as a visual artist, and her words, simple, cool and often witty, kept me reading and made the story work almost all the way to the end. Her etchings really carry the book, though. On my first read-through, I didn’t think I cared much for them. I found that they stayed with me and I was picking up the book to leaf through it, stopping at one or two pictures in particular. The introduction of Raven, on Page 15, is one I kept returning to. The Raven looks innocent and vulnerable, and the Postman’s shadow beyond her is ominous. The cover etching, a human child outlined in red inside the shape of a raven, is also compelling. At first glance this seems backwards — Raven Girl feels that she is a raven inside a human, not vice versa — but as the story unfolds we realize that Raven Girl sees her raven nature as bigger, more encompassing. The most intriguing illustration is on Page 63, where Raven Girl’s smile is satisfied and enigmatic at the same time.
The book is a bit of a high-wire act and the writing and the art are good enough that even the wobbles and near-spills look interesting. I do not believe in the ending, however, and Niffenegger’s comment in her Acknowledgments that “fairy tales have their own remorseless logic and their own rules,” is no excuse. She is a good writer. The come-from-nowhere ending could have been better established in at least two places in the story. I don’t think this story can tolerate too close an examination of its themes either; the Postman could be described as abducting the Raven, and the Boy who reacts to what he sees as a shocking mutilation is punished for it. In this sense, the “fairy tale” story probably works, since many of Grimm’s original stories had morals that seem incomprehensible now.
Abrams ComicArts has a reputation for creating beautiful books, and Raven Girl is no exception. Niffenegger uses a monochromatic background for each illustration, and the book carries forward that theme. The cover is charcoal gray, accenting the red line of the child. The end papers feature drawings of ravens in flight, and there is a raven on the back cover. The glossy paper brings a subtle sheen to the drawings.
Raven Girl has some problems, but it is lovely and thought-provoking, and certainly can be read as an allegory for anyone who believes they are an outsider.