Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
I wept like a baby while reading Ness’ novel, A Monster Calls, a YA story with crossover appeal. It was about a young boy coming to terms with love, death and grief, and incorporated magical elements and fables; The Crane Wife, his first full adult novel, seems a natural progression.
The Crane Wife is the story of George, a good man who inspires loyalty in those around him, but needs direction in his mid-life. One night he wakes to find an injured white crane in his garden. He breaks the arrow through its wing, rescuing it, and it flies away.
Amanda, George’s daughter is also struggling with life at the moment – she’s angry with everything and everyone, especially her boss Rachel – the only exceptions are her father and her young son JP.
George runs a print shop, assisted by Mehmet, an out of work actor who is pretty useless but a good friend. George tends to leave the front of the shop to Mehmet so he can hide away in the back room where he makes pictures with cuttings from old books.
To take his blade and cut into the pages of a book felt like such a taboo, such a transgression against everything he held dear, George still half-expected them to bleed every time he did it.
He loved physical books with the same avidity other people loved horses or wine or prog rock. He’d never really warmed to e-books because they seemed to reduce a book to a computer file, and computer files were disposable things, things you never really owned. He had no emails from ten years ago but still owned every book he bought that year. Besides, what was more perfect an object than a book?
When the mysterious Kumiko, an artist, appears at his shop dressed in white, they start dating. She appears to be the answer to all that is missing in his life. What’s more, his paper cutting complements her intricate collages made from feathers. Put together onto one tile, their art attracts attention – and buyers. George has never been happier, yet the arrival of Kumiko on the scene does complicate life for all around him. She is an enigma, George knows nothing about her, he just accepts her for what she is, or isn’t…
Interwoven into the contemporary narrative is that of an old Japanese folk tale re-told by Ness about an unlikely love story between a crane and a volcano. This parallel narrative worked well, Ness having found an entirely natural way to work it into the main story through Kumiko’s art. She is recreating the story in her tiles, now with added cuttings from George worked into them.
’… A story needs to be told. A story must be told. How else can we live in this world that makes no sense?’
‘How else can we live with the extraordinary?’ George murmured.
‘Yes,’ Kumiko said, seriously. ‘Exactly that. The extraordinary happens all the time. So much, we can’t take it. Life and happiness and heartache and love. If we couldn’t put it into a story – ‘
‘And explain it-’
‘No!’ she said, suddenly sharp. ‘Not explain. Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel. No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flowers. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us.’ She sagged a little, as if exhausted by this speech. ‘As it surely, surely would.’
The idea that the end of a story is just a beginning is a very powerful thought. How true it is too. The best tales often leave some things unsaid, giving the reader space to wonder what came next. Neat resolutions tying up all the ends aren’t always needed. That this story is powered by art physically coming from books with George’s paper-cutting adds another layer, giving that sort of parallel version perhaps which Kumiko alludes to. I particularly love novels in which magic, ‘the extraordinary’ if you will, is a natural extension of life. Ness achieved this here with ease, weaving in the Japanese folk tale with the real events.
He also made George and Amanda easy to love. Amanda in particular, is one those characters you can easily empathise with – we’ve all been there at different times in our lives. Her pent-up anger at her lot keeps spilling over and alienating those around her – her husband left her, she has few if any friends, and a very sparky relationship with her work colleagues, it’s a good thing she has George and JP. George meanwhile is so good, he needs his edges rubbing off. Kumiko is harder to fathom, but she is the cypher through whom the others will work out their problems.
Once again, Ness tugged at my heart-strings. Although there are some light-hearted moments, I read large parts of this lovely novel with a tear in my eye, sometimes sad, oftimes joyous.
Annabel Gaskell is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and only used to cry at films and telly, but the power of books got to her too.
Patrick Ness, The Crane Wife (Canongate: Edinburgh, 2013). 978-0857868749, 320pp., paperback.
This review is Annabel’s revision of an original post on her blog.