The Three Incestuous Sisters & The Rabbi's Cat

The Three Incestuous Sisters & The Rabbi's Cat

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The Three Incestuous Sisters

Author: Audrey Niffenegger
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams

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The Rabbi's Cat

Author: Joann Sfar
Publisher: Pantheon

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Audrey Niffenegger's 2003 debut novel The Time Traveler's Wife was a solid gem that well deserved its runaway-bestseller status. But while Niffenegger had never written a novel before, she'd been producing books for years, working as a fine artist and as a teacher at the Center For Book & Paper Arts at Chicago's Columbia College. She's working on a second novel, but her first follow-up to Time Traveler's Wife is an art book, the oversized "novel in pictures" The Three Incestuous Sisters. Originally created over 14 years in a limited run of 10 copies, Incestuous Sisters is an anomaly on every level: a mass-produced version of a handmade art project, a gothic picture book for adults, and a sort of oblique storyboard with no film to accompany it.

Created through a time-consuming, antiquated process called aquatinting, Incestuous Sisters looks very much like an Edward Gorey book with the scratchy fine interior shading replaced by a textured wash of dark, broody color. The simple story follows three sisters who live together near the sea and it's told mostly through expressive and sometimes surreal images, each generally captioned by a single sentence. The results are sometimes wryly amusing and sometimes grim, but while the streamlined art shows the effort of the process which went into it, it doesn't communicate soul-deep pain as effectively as Niffenegger's prose, which is here kept to a calculated, almost haiku-economic minimum. Readers who found Niffenegger through her novel are likely to miss her more overt voice.

Lack of words isn't a problem in Joann Sfar's dense graphic novel The Rabbi's Cat, which packs in so much text that the twisted, variable, brightly colorful art seems like a secondary consideration. Much of the appeal of Sfar books like Dungeon is their sheer unpredictability; Sfar has no compunctions about setting up a terrific premise, then walking off to another one to keep things fresh. The Rabbi's Cat begins in '30s-era Algiers, where a rabbi's cat eats a talking parrot, gains the power of speech, and begins debating religion and ethics with the rabbi and the rabbi's teacher, insightfully but with all a cat's self-serving amorality. It's heady, fascinating stuff, but Sfar casually moves on to an observational mode, delving into the further life of the rabbi's daughter, her husband, and the husband's family, who represent different ages, countries, cultures, and points of view. What begins as a piquant story about a perspective outside humanity becomes a richer narrative about the possibilities humanity has to offer.

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