Turnoff though it may be to read something described as a postmodern fairy tale, that really is the handiest label for Audrey Niffenegger's latest, Raven Girl, an illustrated novella about a mixed-species brood. It's a lovely story. A postman in the electronic era lives on the outskirts of a city—perhaps London. From his house, Niffenegger (Her Fearful Symmetry, The Time Traveler's Wife) writes, the postman can see "the skyscrapers of the city of which his suburb was the outermost appendage." That's the third sentence of the book, establishing its audience: not children, necessarily. Or, at the very least, children with parents who can translate prose that's slightly elevated, yet still well within the fairy-tale vernacular.
Anyway, the postman discovers a raven fallen from her nest. He takes her home and soon falls in love with her, though they can't speak to one another—she's a bird, after all, and he is a postman. They produce offspring, the mechanics of which process Niffenegger elides. But here she is: a Raven Girl. She looks human but feels avian. She doesn't talk. When she's old enough, the Raven Girl seeks out the interventions of modern medicine—a plastic surgeon, in fact, who suggests he might be able to give her her wings.
Niffenegger has written elsewhere that she got the idea for this book after reading in Harper's about an "avant-garde" surgeon who, like her fictional doctor, wanted to transform people in fantastical ways: give them wings, for instance. "It made me think about transgender surgeries," she recalled, "about being seen as one thing while secretly convinced, secretly knowing that you are something quite different. I imagined a girl who is a bird." Indeed, Raven Girl reads like an allegory of gender transition. It also reads like it could be the liner notes to a 2005 song by Antony and the Johnsons: "Bird Gurhl," a gorgeous evocation—by a transgender artist—of the yearning to become who you know you are. An animation accompanying the song that appeared on the Internet shows a person leaping off a building—both suicide and flight.
This little book is like that, but happier. The Raven Girl feels unsatisfied with her body—she knows she was meant to fly—and she avails herself of the best possible option, the surgical one. She's nearly foiled in her attempts by a classmate who thinks he has her best interests in mind, but he doesn't succeed. And so the narrative achieves a neat linearity: with the help of her doctor and the support of her parents, the Raven Girl becomes who she wants to be. In real life the story's rarely as easy. But I guess that's why this is a fairy tale.
Niffenegger produced this book at the urging of the Royal Ballet in London, which needed a story to dance to. You won't see that here, but you will see the author's moody, Gorey-esque illustrations, which are more than sufficient.