Friday, November 17, 2006

The Three Incestuous Sisters - Audrey Niffenegger

The Three Incestuous Sisters: An Illustrated Novel
(Amazon Link)

I saw this in Waterstones a while ago and was struck by several things. How nice it looked, how bloody huge it was, how expensive it was and how it had managed to get onto the fiction shelves at the front of the store just because it's from the author of the Time Traveller's Wife.

It appears that before she wrote TTW and had huge success with it, Niffenegger published very limited editions of her work, hand-made, incredibly small print runs. She was finally encouraged to put The Three Incestuous Sisters into a larger printing and there was the result, sitting on the new fiction shelf.
My main problem with it lies in a feeling that it's sitting on the shelf purely because of the success of the TTW, which of course it is. But why, if they can put that on the new fiction shelf, can't I see the latest stuff by Seth, Scott McCloud, Alan Moore et al sitting there as well? I shouldn't have been surprised though, it is published by Jonothan Cape, who have a recent run of spotting a good crossover graphic novel when they see one: Ghost World, Ice Haven, Jimmy Corrigan. They seem to be very good at convincing the book stores that these books with pictures should be racked with the "real" books and not consigned to the small section buried in the bottom of Sci-Fi where From Hell sits next to Batman.

The three sisters, Clothilde, Ophile and Bettine fall in love with Paris, the lighthouse-keeper's son. Paris chooses Bettine and they have a child together. Consumed by jealousy they cause Bettine's death after which Paris runs away to sea and Ophile, appaled by what she has done, throws herself from the lighthouse. The only sister left, Clothilde lives the rest of her life sad and alone until she recognises the amazing flying boy at a circus as Bettine's child. There is a reconciliation between Clothilde, Paris and his long lost son.
And that's the story.
I don't deny it's a beautiful piece of work. But it's insubstantial and slight (in content, not weight. It's heavy enough to keep doors open with). Her story is a mood piece, light on words designed to draw you into the simplistic still life artwork. And by and large it does work. The incestuous nature of the sisters concerns their closeness and spinster like ways and Niffennegger's writing; clipped and emotionless, re-enforces this feeling. It's just too little and I was left feeling somehow let down at the end.

Of course, the pedant in me insists on referring to it as an illustrated book, or if you prefer (and from the cover it appears the publishers certainly do) "a novel in pictures".

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