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.

© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Show Hide image

How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit