Fus­ing the fan­tas­tic with the ev­ery­day, Ja­panese folk tale’s retelling soars

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Jill Wil­son

THE Crane Wife is a bit of an odd duck. Its Bri­tish au­thor, Pa­trick Ness, is a Carnegie Award-win­ning au­thor of young adult lit­er­a­ture, most no­tably the Chaos Walk­ing sci-fi tril­ogy. His new novel for adult read­ers is not spec­u­la­tive fic­tion; how­ever, he com­bines el­e­ments of the fan­tas­tic with the story of rather or­di­nary peo­ple to create a hy­brid that’s a kind of mod­ern-day fa­ble. Read­ers are im­me­di­ately alerted to the kind of book they’re in for from the first chapter, a beau­ti­ful mix of kitchen-sink re­al­ity and mag­i­cal re­al­ism. Ami­able di­vorcé Ge­orge, 48 and lonely, rises one cold night to void his blad­der — the pro­saic act ren­dered in un­stint­ing de­tail — when he re­al­izes what has ac­tu­ally awak­ened him is the keen­ing of an in­jured crane in his back­yard. He ven­tures out into the bit­ing cold and ap­proaches the bird, which he sees has an ar­row pro­trud­ing from its wing. He strug­gles with how to help the bird, which seems to re­gard him the same way the women in his life do: “It had made the same mis­take as all the oth­ers, see­ing a man when, upon closer in­spec­tion, he was only re­ally a guy.” Find­ing courage, he breaks off the shaft of the ar­row and re­moves it, but not be­fore the bird has fixed him with its golden eye and he is shocked into in­tro­duc­ing him­self to it. The next day, at Ge­orge’s Lon­don print shop, a strangely beau­ti­ful woman named Ku­miko — “in a sim­ple white dress, with a hat that looked both 90 years out of date and a har­bin­ger of the lat­est thing” — comes in to have fac­sim­i­les made of her art­work, nar­ra­tive tiles com­posed of clev­erly ar­ranged feath­ers. You prob­a­bly don’t need to know the story of the crane wife to un­der­stand that Ku­miko is, in some way, the bird he res­cued, but here it is, just in case. The Ja­panese folk tale is about a sail­maker who nurses an in­jured crane back to health. A woman later ap­pears at his doorstep and they even­tu­ally marry. They are poor, but on oc­ca­sion, the woman weaves won­der­ful sails to sell, ask­ing only that her hus­band never watch her do her work. Of course, he dis­obeys, and dis­cov­ers his wife is the crane, blood­ied and ex­hausted, pluck­ing her own feath­ers out to weave into sails. When she sees him, she flies away for­ever. (Seat­tle band the De­cem­berists’ con­cept al­bum The Crane Wife is based on the same story; Ness ad­mits to be­ing greatly influenced by the disc.) As in the fa­ble, Ge­orge and Ku­miko fall in love. They also com­bine their art styles (Ge­orge makes cut-outs of books) into pieces that throw the art world in a tizzy and make the cou­ple a lot of money. In be­tween the story of their bur­geon­ing re­la­tion­ship, Ness in­serts chap­ters about Ge­orge’s daugh­ter Amanda — the prickly, di­vorced mother of a young son who can’t re­sist speak­ing the truth, even when it’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate, and who bri­dles at sen­ti­ment, even with the peo­ple who love her — and other sec­tions that read like an an­cient myth about a love af­fair be­tween a crane and a vol­cano, who rep­re­sent the forces of for­give­ness and de­struc­tion. The Crane Wife has a lot of things go­ing on — it’s about the im­por­tance of kind­ness, the power of love and art, and the mu­ta­bil­ity of sto­ries, es­pe­cially those we tell our­selves. That sounds like a lot to di­gest, but in Ness’s hands, it’s all ut­terly en­gag­ing and em­i­nently read­able. Ness is a lovely, ob­ser­vant writer who also has a knack for di­a­logue — the se­cond chapter is just a back-and-forth con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Ge­orge and his sar­cas­tic slacker em­ployee that smacks of the truth. And if the min­gling of the mag­i­cal and the mat­ter-of-fact doesn’t al­ways work, the au­thor’s han­dle on the re­al­i­ties of day-today life is any­thing but quo­tid­ian; in fact, the best chap­ters are rel­a­tively straight­for­ward ones that de­pict the char­ac­ters deal­ing with work strug­gles, par­ent­hood and fam­ily. It’s also a very funny book, with the laughs of­ten aris­ing from Amanda’s caus­tic wit. “A bit sud­den?” she snidely re­marks when Ge­orge tells her Ku­miko is mov­ing in with him. “You’ve known her for two weeks! If that! What are you, mayflies?” It’s not easy to buy Ge­orge’s love for Ku­miko, whose mys­te­ri­ous na­ture leaves her a bit of a ci­pher to the reader, nor the vis­ceral re­ac­tion to their col­lab­o­ra­tive art — us­ing words to de­scribe some­thing so al­legedly vis­ually stun­ning is, as the say­ing goes, like danc­ing about ar­chi­tec­ture — but Ness does suc­ceed in mak­ing you long to see it.

Jill Wil­son is a Free Press copy ed­i­tor.

The Crane Wife

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