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Review: ‘Raven Girl’ by Audrey Niffenegger

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Audrey Niffenegger will discuss and sign “Raven Girl,” 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Swedish American Museum, 5211 N. Clark.

Updated: June 13, 2013 5:35PM

Above and beyond all else, “Raven Girl,” Audrey Niffenegger’s very strange and very modern new fairy tale, serves as vivid proof that there can be no substitute for the sheer beauty of an old fashioned paper book.

So just for starters, cheers to publisher Abrams Comic Arts, a division of the estimable art book publisher, for producing such an exquisite volume ($19.95), and for giving this newest tale by the Chicago and London-based Niffenegger (author of the best-selling novel, “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” as well as such illustrated books as “The Three Incestuous Sisters” and “The Adventuress”) a jewel-like presentation.

From the red cover and charcoal gray dust jacket bearing the compelling image of a young girl outlined in red and superimposed over the body of a black raven, to the glossy pages of etchings in various shades of matte green and ecru and sepia-tinged brown, the book is a colorist’s dream that hauntingly captures the world of birds and humans and, as the title suggests, a creature that is somewhere in between.

I read Niffenegger’s gorgeously illustrated story from start to finish before looking at the final page of acknowledgements. And I was not at all surprised to learn that the genesis of her story was an invitation by Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer of London’s Royal Ballet, to create a tale that could inspire a ballet.

Of course men have been having weird love affairs with birds for close to two centuries in the ballet world. Just think about “Swan Lake,” in which Prince Siegfried (as well as the evil sorcerer von Rothbart) is involved with feathery creatures, as well as the Russian folk tale “Firebird,” and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Song of the Nightingale.” The illusion of flight is part of what ballet is all about.

But “The Raven Girl” is, in its special way, very 21st century.

It all begins when a lonely, no-longer-young suburban postman, an employee of Her Majesty’s Postal Service, sets out to deliver a letter to an address with which he is wholly unfamiliar. His search ends at a bird’s nest built into a cliff, and before long he has rescued a small female raven who appears to be in distress. He decides to take her home, and feed and nurture her. And before long this odd, cross-species pair have fallen in love.

And yes, they marry, and she becomes pregnant, and from out of a very large egg emerges a daughter that in many ways is a girl, though she displays many of the habits of a bird, including a fervent desire to fly. Yet it is only when this shy “raven girl” goes off to university, and hears a lecture by a plastic surgeon who proclaims we now have “the power to improve ourselves, if we wish to do so ... and become anything we wish to be,” that something radical is set in motion.

It is not difficult to imagine how a ballet version could be realized. A design team would certainly find grand inspiration in Niffenegger’s stunningly reproduced etchings: the black, thickly feathered raven; the slender postman with his birdlike face; the delicate raven girl in utero; the elaborate nest perched atop an iron bed; the defenestrated doctor; the elegant bird-girl in her simple black slip dress; the Raven Prince with his tiny crown. A new fairy tale takes flight.

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