Friday, January 14, 2011

The Three Incestuous Sisters, Audrey Niffeneger

Posted by lea at 3:21 PM
This offering from Audrey Niffenegger of The Time Traveller's Wife fame is an adult picture book that, unfortunately, is not about a lesbian love affair between sisters. That might have been interesting.

Not to say that this book isn't. It's just... less interesting than the title would have you believe.

The Three Incestuous Sisters (why 'incestuous'? Where are they incestuous? And is my obsession with this unnerving? I just want to know what led her to choose this word, apart from the fact that it's so loaded) is a surreal tale about three orphaned sisters (Bettine, Clothilde and Ophile) who basically bust up over a guy. The writing is sparse and accompanied by Gorey-esque images of mostly grey hues (this is Edward Gorey who wrote and illustrated the tongue-in-cheek The Recently Deflowered Girl. Come to think of it, aren't our tongues always in our cheeks? I don't get this phrase at all).

Niffenegger has called The Three Incestuous Sisters 'the book of my heart, a fourteen-year labor of love' in the afterword, and describes the laborious process of creating the aquatint images. The book was meant to be a work of art, with only 10 limited leather-bound editions including almost 100 hand-coloured, individually printed, aquatint etchings on hand-made paper (a ha! That explains why Claire in The Time Traveller's Wife has that same obsession. Clearly Niffenegger is married to a time traveller!), accompanied by hand-set type.

The library copy simply couldn't live up to the textures and depth the original artwork was created to convey, so what we have left is very sparse prose and haunting images on flat glossy paper. The problem with this is that the book promises too much. The size alone (9½" x 12½") juts out of the shelf, demanding attention, and then the title causes your eyes to pop. 

Then you open it up and in a snapshot, the story is this: The three girls were happy together until the late lighthouse keeper's son, Paris, comes along and falls in love with Bettine, the youngest sister who's a pretty blonde. The eldest, Ophile with the dark blue hair, becomes jealous and mistreats Bettine, forcing Paris and Bettine out of the house. It leads to tragedy, death, regret and reconciliation which I won't go into for fear of spoiling the ending.

The book has fairytale elements: the pretty blonde gets the guy, the ugly older sister acts like a shrew (actually it doesn't say she's ugly - I'm just guessing) with an undercurrent of tragedy, but the story never goes beyond itself to create something really magical. The strength of the book is in the illustrations (do I have to keep calling them 'aquatints'?) that provide the macabre, dark gothic feel that the storytelling seems to lack.

What's interesting is that Niffenegger wrote The Time Traveller's Wife in between creating this book, so essentially it was like her way of procrastinating. Yet the side project eclipsed her main one, and probably also had a lot to do with getting it published too.


Anonymous said...

Hooray for printmaking! I can't say I've come across any books illustrated by aquatints - it's usually screenprinting or lino. But i really, really dislike misleading titles... I find it on par with attention-seeking tabloid headlines.

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