Fusing the fantastic with the everyday, Japanese folk tale’s retelling soars
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print shop, a strangely beautiful woman named Kumiko — “in a simple white dress, with a hat that looked both 90 years out of date and a harbinger of the latest thing” — comes in to have facsimiles made of her artwork, narrative tiles composed of cleverly arranged feathers.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