The Three Incestuous Sisters by Audrey Niffenegger

27/08/05, The Times

Always judge a book by its covers. Or, if not just by the covers, then its shape, size, the layout of the pages, the font, the lavish care and love that have gone into its setting and production — in other words, the very materiality of the book, its status not only as something to be read but as an object, as something to look at, to have and to hold, for The Three Incestuous Sisters is such a book.

For those readers who didn’t pay enough attention to the biographical details of the author of last year’s runaway bestseller, The Time Traveler’s Wife, her new book will come as a great surprise. It is a visual novel by Audrey Niffenegger, an adult version of an illustrated children’s storybook: each right-hand page is an aquatint, and the left-hand page almost pristinely blank except for the presence of a few sparse words related to the picture on the right. But on closer examination the surprise at the format and genre receives factual substantiation: Niffenegger is Professor of Visual Arts at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts.

It tells the story of three sisters, Ophile, Clothilde and Bettine, who live in a lonely house by the sea, near a lighthouse, miles away from the city. When the lighthouse keeper is struck down by lightning, his handsome young son, Paris, is sent for. All three sisters fall for him, but when Paris chooses Bettine, Ophile brims over with bitterness and jealousy. When Bettine gets pregnant, Ophile, almost demented with poisonous feelings, causes her sister’s death. Before dying, Bettine gives birth to a son. Ophile, haunted by remorse, drowns herself. Clothilde, the sister with magical powers, continues to live in the lonely old house till one day a circus comes to town, a circus that features an amazing flying boy. Could this be her sister’s son whom she taught words, numbers, music, the art of flying, while he was still snuggled in the womb? What appears to be an Angela Carter-inflected refraction of the classical tale of Paris and his judgment of the contest between Athena, Diana and Aphrodite, morphs into a moving tale of loss and recovery, of fractures and reconciliations, bringing to mind those miraculous final plays of Shakespeare, especially The Winter’s Tale and Pericles. But it’s the aquatints comprising the book, each one a scintillating gem, that lift it from just another adult fable to something far more precious and rapturously beautiful.

The authorial presence behind them is the great American cartoonist Edward Gorey, especially his wordless, sinister and surreal The West Wing. Like Gorey, Niffenegger can endow objects with secret lives of their own. A candelabra reflected in a mirror, a small phalanx of drooping sunflowers, a pale egg yolk of a sun, all acquire a metaphorical heft in the context of her tale; the blooming roses that announce Paris’s arrival on the bottom corner of a frame almost fill up the entire page in Pre-Raphaelite profusion when he and Bettine get together.

Her confined palette allows for startling details to be picked out, such as the lambent red flame of Clothilde’s hair, or the lighthouse keeper’s body, struck by lightning, in the configuration of a broken marionette fallen from its supporting strings.

And yet, it remains, above all, a tale of human errors and human redemptions, so much so that Bettine’s flying son at the end acquires almost Christlike reverberations of the holy fool. This book is a thing of exquisite beauty, a joy for ever.