The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

Regular readers will recall that I am a fan of mythology and the reworking of mythological elements or stories.  So when I saw a few reviews for The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness I was intrigued. Here is the first sentence of the publisher’s blurb:

A magical novel, based on a Japanese folk tale, that imagines how the life of a broken-hearted man is transformed when he rescues an injured white crane that has landed in his backyard.

Had me hooked right there.  Throw in the fact that Ness is the author of a YA fantasy series I have been meaning to read for sometime and I was definitely hooked.

The Crane WifeGeorge Duncan is an American living and working in London.  At forty-eight, he owns a small print shop, is divorced, and lonelier than he realizes.  All of the women with whom he has relationships eventually leave him for being too nice.  But one night he is woken by an astonishing sound—a terrific keening, which is coming from somewhere in his garden.  When he investigates he finds a great white crane, a bird taller than even himself.  It has been shot through the wing with an arrow.  Moved more than he can say, George struggles to take out the arrow from the bird’s wing, saving its life before it flies away into the night sky.

The next morning, a shaken George tries to go about his daily life, retreating to the back of his store and making cuttings from discarded books—a harmless, personal hobby—when through the front door of the shop a woman walks in.  Her name is Kumiko, and she asks George to help her with her own artwork.  George is dumbstruck by her beauty and her enigmatic nature, and begins to fall desperately in love with her.   She seems to hold the potential to change his entire life, if he could only get her to reveal the secret of who she is and why she has brought her artwork to him.

I found it to be a lyrical and imaginative story. Granted it requires the “suspension of disbelief” but if you can just let the story flow the mix of fantasy and folklore is beautiful. It includes an insightful portrayal of relationships and family and an ethereal folktale about love and violence.

It is a rather unique mix of styles and approaches, however, and not everybody will get swept up in it as I did.

Ursula K. Le Guin in her Guardian reviewhad this to say:

The tremendous effect of the sliced-up-book-and-feather artworks on everyone’s emotions isn’t made very believable, and the passages where deep mythic chords are struck ring less true than the scenes having to do with ordinary London life. The merely human characters are vivid and likeable, the story is lively and often quite funny. Momentum slackens only in the long passages of unbroken, unascribed, brief-line dialogue. Where a play or film script might use [Pause] or [Beat] as a signal to the actors, these dialogues repeatedly use ellipses-in-quotes: “…” Is the reader expected somehow to perform these silences? A script isn’t a narrative; it’s a quite different way of telling a story, and for me these dialogues, even when clever, fail to work as part of a novel. But expectations change with generations, and the reduction of human relationships to a back-and-forth table-tennis bounce of bodiless voices may be perfectly satisfactory to readers who spend a lot of time on a mobile phone.

In contrast, Paul Di Fillipo

This artful, jumpy narration, to my sensibilities at least, harks back more to the YA approach of keeping a boredom-intolerant teenage reader heavily invested in a cascade of swift events. It’s definitely not the chin-pulling, deliberately protracted, lugubrious pace of much adult literary fiction. And yet Ness’s themes, attitudes, and topics are markedly “adult.” Loneliness, regret, betrayal, disappointment, an inability to make one’s exterior life and circumstances match one’s hidden interior portrait, a sense of false steps and no turning back — until a miracle occurs and is met receptively.

I will agree with Le Guin that the “straight” mythological sections seemed awkwardly woven into the story at times but I liked the dialog and found the book readable and lyrical.  It didn’t seem to be striving for cool as Le Guin believes.

I do wonder if perhaps the novel would have been stronger with less mythology in the foreground and instead merely hinted at the myth and let the supernatural or speculative lurk in the background. The characters are so well done and yet aspects of the writing ethereal and mystical. I think he could have left the folklore connection floating but felt rather than so bluntly described.

But as is I found it a wonderful read. Perhaps not surprising given my penchant for both myth and fantastical young adult fiction.  So if you have an interest in either of those areas or both, this would be a must read to my mind.  But it doesn’t require that interest to be enjoyed.


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.