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Book Review: The Crane Wife

By (January 30, 2014) No Comment

The Crane Wifethe crane wife cover

by Patrick Ness

The Penguin Press, 2014


Patrick Ness has a devoted following of readers who rightly love his “Chaos Walking” trilogy of Young Adult novels, but he’s also kept a steady hand in the world of fiction aimed at adults (if such distinctions mean anything anymore in a world where millions of adults equally consume both the puerile glop of Fifty Shades of Grey and the puerile glop of The Fault in Our Stars), and his latest novel, The Crane Wife, seems to be one of those. The ‘seems’ isn’t ironclad: most of Ness’ writing traits carry over to this latest book, and although the main character isn’t a teenager who can be played by a very attractive 30-year-old in the movie adaptation, it’s entirely possible that Ness’ more adventurous teen readers would enjoy The Crane Wife a great deal. There’s a great deal to enjoy: this author gets a little bit better with everything he writes, regardless of genre.

The aforementioned main character hasn’t been a teenager in a while: it’s forty-eight-year-old American expat George Duncan, who’s divorced, living in England, running a barely-solvent print shop, and expressing himself through artistic paper cuttings that remain just on the safe side of inspired. George is just on the safe side of inspired himself; he’s a milksop, a bland, nice guy whose wife divorced him because he wasn’t interesting enough (‘You’re about sixty-five per cent,’ she tells him, ‘And I think seventy is probably my minimum’) and whose grown daughter Amanda (who has a son of her own) is often affectionately exasperated with him. When he’s visiting the loo late one winter night and hears a strange, whooshing keening sound out in his back garden, he thinks at first it might be some kind of prowler – the last thing he expects is something extraordinary. But standing there calmly in the dark of his garden is something extraordinary indeed: a great bird, “illuminated only by the moon in the cold, clear winter sky, shades of white, grey and dark against the shadows of his lawn standing there regarding him, its eye a small, golden glint of blinking wet, level with his own, its body as long as he’d been when he was at his teenage gangliest.”

George recognizes immediately the surreal nature of the encounter:

But if it wasn’t a dream, it was one of those special corners of what’s real, one of those moments, only a handful of which he could recall throughout his lifetime, where the world dwindled down to almost no one, where it seemed to pause just for him, so that he could, for a moment, be seized into life.

The crane is wounded, an arrow jutting from one of its wings (a “proper” arrow, one made for killing people), and anybody familiar with the type of Japanese folk tale from which this novel draws its inspiration will have an inkling of what’s to follow. George manages to remove the arrow, the crane flies off into night, and the next day a mysterious Japanese woman named Kumiko shows up at the print shop. Much to the amazement of George’s friends and family (in some scenes that are raucously funny), he and Kumiko begin a relationship that’s as much artistic and personal. Kumiko adds her feathery cuttings to George’s, and the combination makes artwork so exquisite that soon lucrative offers are coming in for more. George himself is astounded by how Kumiko’s simple changes make his artwork into something he almost doesn’t recognize:

She had taken the closed fist he’d made, the one bled of power and vengeance, the one that seemed resigned and perhaps welcoming of its ultimate fate, and paired it with the feathered cuttings of the cheek and neck of the woman looking away from the artist … It had intimations of violence, fist against face, no matter how calm the fist, but this dissipated quickly. The fist became no longer a fist, but simply a closed hand, withdrawing, empty from its final caress of the woman’s face. The caress may, in fact, have been of a memory, the closed hand reaching into the past to feel it again, but failing, as the past always fails those who grasp at it.

‘It’s just a picture,’ George kept saying to himself, as he tried to find a spot on the wall to display it. ‘It’s just a picture.’ Trying to somehow surprise it out of its power, reduce its impact on him, keep it from making his stomach tumble.

But he failed. And was happy that he did.

The arc of these Japanese shape-shifter stories is always the same: the crane (or fox, or tiger) is saved by a simple act of human kindness and repays that kindness with an industry that becomes so lucrative it inevitably provokes a simple act of human greed – at which point the shape-shifter flees, never to be seen again. It’s an odd elaboration on the old fable of the goose that laid the golden egg, since in addition to providing the basis for great new wealth from her human host, the crane wife is also able to warn that host about what things might queer the deal, but the warnings never come. The goose that laid the golden egg isn’t consciously testing its owners, but in these shape-shifter stories, humans overreach and lose what their original act of mercy gained them.

Despite his years of service to the bloodthirsty aesthetic of today’s YA crowd, Ness can’t quite commit himself to the full bleakness of his template. His scenes with Kumiko and George are touchingly awkward, as are the scenes where George’s daughter and grandson get to know this strange woman who’s entered their father’s hum-drum life (at one point Amanda and Kumiko bond over their shared irritation with the rudeness of urban cyclists, among other pet peeves of the author), but when the crucial scenes arrive, Ness adroitly swaps tragedy for desolation.

The few readers who notice won’t care, since this is powerful, wistful, insightful writing either way.