Sisters, symbols and fate


The Three Incestuous Sisters

Indianapolis Art Center

Through July 22

In anticipation of taking in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Three Incestuous Sisters, a visual novel now on view at the Indianapolis Art Center, I read her much-lauded The Time Traveler’s Wife, a novel suggesting that both fate and love exist outside of time. I was quickly hooked. Like most people, I’ve pondered and debated the notion of fate, the notion of true love, hopeful that both are real and that happy endings are possible — indeed, inevitable. And like many, I have come to no definitive conclusion.

There is no proof, after all. Or is there?

Niffenegger’s novel was a delightful escape, artfully asserting that there is an inevitability to certain of life’s events, and as such offers an odd sort of comfort — unless, of course, a fated event is a tragic one. However it works, I suppose it’s better not to know — string theory and parallel universes aside.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, weighing in at more than 500 pages, drives its point home in a whirlwind of narrative, ricocheting back and forth in time and between voices; the protagonist, Clare, telling her side of the story while Henry, her love of all time, tells his. The novel is a dizzying collection of ministories arcing towards its conclusion: that time is really an illusion, but a necessary one. And we can’t change what happens within it, because it has already happened.

Niffenegger’s The Three Incestuous Sisters is a different being, but it works within the same premise: Certain events are inevitable, determined by fate, perhaps, à la Oedipus and the unrelenting force of character. But Niffenegger tells her tale of three sisters in pictures and few words, her stark and magical line drawings realized through the process of aquatint etching. Niffenegger says she worked at the book for 14 years, starting it long before beginning and ending Time Traveler.

The story goes something like this: Boy meets girl; boy and girl fall in love; boy and girl make baby and now there are three. But the girl has two sisters, and one is also in love with boy, so tragedy ensues. But there is a sort of happy ending (I won’t spoil it), and there is reconciliation. The notion of three is in itself a powerful symbol: three, the holy trinity; past, present and future; in the case of the sisters, brains, beauty and talent.

Niffenegger’s book is lovely and dreamlike. Images of the jealous sister, Ophile, the inner saboteur, are most arresting, her long blue-black hair forming a sort of shroud that can’t contain the agency of her passion.

The story can be analyzed any number of ways: as an archetypal tale of love and betrayal, with the three sisters as aspects of the self vying for dominance and, ultimately, integration, or wholeness. Whether or not fate exists, that’s the psychological challenge we all face — and this is where free will comes in.

The Three Incestuous Sisters is on view at the Indianapolis Art Center, 820 E. 67th St., through July 22. Call 317-255-2464 or visit for more information.