BOOKS Supernatural does not jell with the realistic
The Crane Wife a comedy of modern manners
Heroes don’t come much less conventionally heroic than George Duncan, the central figure in Patrick Ness’s new novel. A 48-year-old American divorcee living in London, George is a man whose life practically illustrates the words “muddling along.”
His once grand academic ambitions reduced to running a print shop, George is liked by all but not the sort to inspire a lot of passion.
“You’re about sixty-five per cent,” his ex-wife had said as she left him. “And I think seventy is probably my minimum.”
Then, one winter night, a wounded crane lands in his garden, one wing pierced by an arrow. George extracts the arrow and frees the bird, and soon afterward a beguiling woman named Kumiko steps into his life, appearing to offer a new shot at love and redemption.
Ness, winner of multiple awards for his children’s and YA fiction, has been inspired by the ancient Japanese folk tale of the crane wife, and takes his epigraph from the album of the same name by the Decemberists.
(In his acknowledgments he calls the Portland group “the greatest band in the world.”)
It would appear to be the perfect source material for a writer whose flair for the magical and supernatural has served him so well in his writing for younger readers, but alas, those elements never really jell with the realistic in his second adult-directed novel.
Aviary folk myth aside, a fine modern comedy of manners is embedded in The Crane Wife. Ness, an American who lives in England, proves himself a deft and insightful chronicler of the transatlantic culture gulf.
The dialogue, especially in the scenes between George’s angry adult daughter Amanda and her catty work friends Ruth and Mei, jumps off the page and is frequently hilarious. Lonely people negotiating alienating urban spaces are rarely so sympathetically and convincingly portrayed.
The trouble comes as the fan- tastical increasingly enters the frame: I found myself thinking that it would have been nice to see these all-too-human characters try to work out their issues under real-life conditions, without the aid/interference of mythological bird women.
There, then, lies the crux. Kumiko, the novel’s catalyst, is a woman to whom people are always saying things like “You are so hard to know.” Enigma is one thing, but over the course of a novel elusiveness can grow irksome. Is Kumiko the crane in human form? Would that explain her odd flatness as a character in such an otherwise well-drawn cast?
Mehmet, George’s Turkish employee at the print shop and the provider of many of the novel’s best comic moments, may well speak for more than a few readers when he asks George, “This isn’t some mysterious allure of the East thing you’ve got with this woman, is it?”
Even though George follows with a zinger — “You’re from the East, Mehmet, and I find you neither mysterious nor alluring” — the question lingers longer than it should.
As the realistic gives way more and more to the allegorical, The Crane Wife runs into some problematic thickets of plot and tone. The shifts are strained, the connections over-explained, the structuring too schematic and there are far too many dream descriptions.
There’s a lot to recommend in The Crane Wife — sentence by sentence, Ness is a pleasure to read but — as much as it pains this book purist to say it — this is one novel that might actually prove better suited to the big screen than to the page. Patrick Ness HarperCollins
Patrick Ness proves himself a deft and insightful chronicler of the transatlantic culture gulf.
The Crane Wife