Published in April 2012.
Raven Girl is the eagerly anticipated new release from the bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Here, in her longest illustrated book to date, Niffenegger has married together her love of art and literature. The illustrations throughout have been produced with an ‘aquatint’ technique, which uses ‘metal, acid, wax and rosin’ and dates from the seventeenth century. Aesthetically, the book is a work of art. It has been beautifully produced, and has silvered edges, glossy pages and beautiful pieces of art which sit alongside the carefully crafted story.
Niffenegger has strived to create a modern day fairytale ‘full of wonderment and longing’, and a ‘mesmerising story that explores the bounds of transformation and possibility’. Raven Girl is a quick read, but a striking and unforgettable one nonetheless. It opens with the intriguing line: ‘Once there was a Postman who fell in love with a Raven’. The story unfolds from here. The characters are all unnamed throughout and go by their easily identifiable titles of ‘Postman’, ‘Raven’, ‘Raven Girl’, ‘the doctor’ and ‘The Boy’. Similiarly, the English city in which the ‘flat, desolate suburb’ of the story takes place is vague in its location.
The real crux of the story comes when the Postman is tasked with delivering a letter to an address which is unknown to him – ‘Dripping Rock, Ravens’ Nest’. On meeting the Raven, who has fallen out of the nest at this address, her brothers ‘made unflattering comments about the Postman, whom they mistook for a cat; none of them had seen a person before, and cats featured in all the scary stories their parents told them at bedtime’. The Postman, believing the Raven to be ill, ‘wrapped her up in his scarf and began the long walk home, the Raven trembling in his arms’. Once at his home, he cares for her rather touchingly: ‘He made her a nest out of his old uniforms and shredded junk mail, and she lived on his kitchen table. He fed her sardines, earthworms, eggs, cheese, Weetabix, and raw lamb chops’.
As the story continues, the Postman and the Raven’s relationship begins to build. ‘As the days and weeks went by’, Niffenegger writes, ‘the Raven was charmed by the Postman. She understood that he meant no harm and that he was not a cat… Slowly the Raven and the Postman began to fall in love’. An egg is laid, ‘greenish-bluish with brown speckles’, and a ‘human girl’ hatches from it. This is the Raven Girl of the book’s title. Her life is a sad one in many respects – she cannot communicate with her father and she is lonely in her childhood – but her parents are determined that she should live as normally as is possible. They send her off to University, where she studies Biology. A visiting lecturer, teaching Raven Girl and her fellow students about chimeras – creatures made from two or more different species – tells her that he can turn her into a bird.
The characters are described to us as soon as they are introduced. The Postman is described as ‘no longer being a young and ardent postman… He yearned to have an adventure, but suspected that he probably wouldn’t… He sometimes had nightmares that featured e-mail’. Such touching and unique details make the characters seem realistic almost immediately, and they feel more endearing in consequence, merely because we know the secrets which bubble below their fixed exteriors. The Raven Girl, too, feels realistic – she is a misfit of the most original kind.
Raven Girl feels like a modern fable in many ways. Its structure is dreamlike in places, and the mixture of the human’s relationship with a creature and the lack of named characters certainly adds to this. The story is inventive, and Niffenegger astounds in the way in which she is always able to create something so utterly unique. Not one of her books is alike, but all are incredibly intriguing and have a way of drawing the reader in almost immediately. The writing style, both simplistic and quite poetic at times, is pitch perfect for such a story. Niffenegger has woven together many elements, from ethics and genetics to the future of humanity in just a few pages, and for this she should certainly be commended.