“Fairy tales have their own remorseless logic and their own rules,” Audrey Niffenegger notes in her acknowledgments to this illustrated novella. She’s absolutely right. Would that she had followed those rules.
Niffenegger has a well-earned reputation as a fantasist. She’s also been creating illustrated books since before her bestselling novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife” made her famous. “Raven Girl” was commissioned as a scenario for a ballet choreographed by Wayne McGregor that will debut in London next week. The story is very much in the mode of fairy tales, built around an impossible love and a difficult transformation, although the “once” that opens it seems to refer to the present day.
Niffenegger’s text pauses every few pages for one of her prettily textured if wobbly aquatint illustrations.The most striking sequence is the opening, in which a postman is tasked with delivering a letter to a raven’s nest. He carries home a fledgling and they fall in love. After a witty pause, they have an egg, from which hatches a human girl who can only speak the language of ravens. So far, so fabulistic. But then, unfortunately, Niffenegger’s tale strays from the path — always a bad thing to do in fairy tales — and her book loses its promising strangeness.
The heroine meets a professor who offers to give her wings through surgery, and she takes him up on it. There is a crime, which is promptly punished. A prince conveniently shows up three paragraphs before the end. Niffenegger gets as much juice as she can out of combining the dreamy syntax of folk tales with language that’s ordinarily alien to them: “The Raven Girl built herself a nest on top of her bed. Her roommate thought she was weird.” But the logic of fairy tales demands that desire exacts a price, and that history always bubbles up from the place where it has been repressed. That doesn’t happen here, and the happy ending that the story cuts corners to reach feels as hollow as a bird’s bones.
Wolk is the author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.”