Audrey Niffenegger's Raven Girl: the return of the illustrated book?

Alex Hern finds that sometimes it's better to let someone else illustrate your words.

Raven Girl
Audrey Niffenegger
Jonathan Cape, 80pp, £16.99, 2 May 2013

A recent New Yorker piece by Sam Sacks made an impassioned call to Bring Back The Illustrated Book!, in the vein, apparently, of Bleak House, Vanity Fair, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. "The interplay between art and text is rich with possibilities that few fiction writers have even begun to explore," he wrote, sparking a "hmmm" from fiction writer and practised explorer of the interplay between art and text Warren Ellis (author of the novels Crooked Little Vein and Gun Machine and the graphic novels Transmetropolitan, Planetary, Global Frequency, Freakangels, RED, and many more).

The fact is that the illustrated novel never went away; it just moved from being filed in "Fiction A-Z" to "Graphic Novels" in Waterstones.

Obviously there remains a difference between a graphic novel as most would understand it and an "illustrated novel". There is a language of comics — speech balloons, thought bubbles, and the like — which is absent from illustrations like George Cruikshank's art in Oliver Twist.

Nonetheless, authors and artists of comics seem far more willing to drop the conventions of their form than prose writers do. Jeff Lemire turned two issues of his post-apocalyptic Sweet Tooth on their side (literally), and scripted them in the style of a children's book; artist Becky Cloonan illustrated Bram Stoker's Dracula; and even in the safe and predictable world of superhero comics, Grant Morrison managed to release an issue of Batman which read like an illustrated short story (unfortunately, the computerised style of John Van Fleet, the illustrator, was universally reviled).

Now, however, Audrey Niffenegger is coming at the cross-over from the other direction. The author, most famous for her debut novel The Time Traveller's Wife, has released a new novella, Raven Girl. Niffenegger, an accomplished draughtswoman, has also illustrated the book, which she describes as a "new fairytale". Naturally, containing both words and pictures, it ended up on my desk.

Initially, I was disappointed. The book is "illustrated" in the most literal sense: Niffeneger draws what is being described in the text. There is no drive to use the images to expand on, or even better, juxtapose with, the prose. A passage of a man watching his Raven-wife fly into the air is illustrated with a picture of a man watching a raven fly into the air. Raven girl at a lecture in university is illustrated with a picture of a girl in a lecture theatre. And so on.

Niffeneger is, bizarrely, on the back foot by virtue of having written the actual book. She won't elaborate on her own words, because she knows exactly what she meant; yet she was clearly writing prose which was later illustrated, rather than writing prose to be illustrated. The art is understated, pretty and simple; but that just plays into her habits, and without the drive to fill in background detail that you see in — to pick one of the most perfectly illustrated books ever — John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, one is left wondering what the point is.

Despite that, the illustrations do substantially change the feel of the book, by removing much of the ambiguity. Her attempt to write a new fairy tale involves many of the hallmarks of the old — interactions between people and animals, fantastical events, kings and queens — but seeing that this isn't allegorical, that the raven really is just a raven and the girl just a girl, makes it seem less magical, and more weird.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear