Earlier this year I wrote about how much I loved A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. This was my first time reading one of his adult novels, and I discovered it to be an enjoyable read that blends the right amount of fantasy with reality. This is a story based on an old Japanese folktale. Ness takes this ancient myth from the East and relocates into present-day London. I love stories that modernize classic fairy tales and myths. While The Crane Wife is not without flaws, I did enjoy it immensely with its lessons on human greed, the ability to forgive, and the power of storytelling.
George Duncan is a lonely middle-aged owner of a print shop in London who in his spare time makes art from cuttings of old books. One night he is awoken by a mysterious sound and finds a giant crane in his backyard. After saving its life from an arrow wound, the bird flies off into the night sky. The event was so surreal that George questions if it actually even happened. The next morning a beautiful and exotic woman named Kumiko walks into the print shop. George is not only struck by her beauty but also by her own artwork, cuttings made from various types of feathers. The two begin working together by combining their respective hobbies into beautiful pieces of art that have the whole community buzzing. As George falls deeply in love with Kumiko with each passing day, he struggles to truly know her as she keeps most of her life a mystery.
“All stories begin before they start and never, ever finish”
As with all great stories, the lives of these characters began long before the opening page and continue long after the book is closed. By the time we meet him, George is quite lonely despite having had numerous girlfriends. Women seem to always have the same complaint about George, that he is too nice, too giving. As he falls deeper and deeper for Kumiko, he becomes obsessed with learning more about her. All of his efforts typically lead to failure, as he never feels he truly has her throughout the story.
The art of storytelling is a powerful device used in this novel. There is also a ‘tale within the tale’ method used here. Throughout the book, Kumiko shares some of the folktale she is telling with her cuttings. This story involves a beautiful crane and a volcano that both loves her and wants to consume her. As the main story continues, the fantasy tale begins to become an increasingly important part of events. I really liked how different events are told in different ways until it gets to the point where that doesn’t matter. Only the outcome itself is pertinent, rather than the how of it. Truth becomes more a matter of perception.
Ness is a fellow anglophile, so of course I applaud the setting in London. Although George was born in America, he has spent more than half of his life in England. This leads to some rather humorous moments involving culture clashes between the two sides of the pond. The funnier moments have a very British comedic feel to them, which as anyone who has watched comedies from the UK knows is a very different type of humor. Ness does not shy away from uncomfortable social situations, as evidenced by scenes with George’s daughter Amanda.
“The inability of people to see themselves clearly. To see what they are actually like, not what they fear they are like or what they wish to be like, but what they actually are. Why is what you are never enough for you?”
Amanda is a young single mother who struggles to hold on to social relationships for any length of time. She often feels like a bull in the china shop of social interactions. Her best friend and boss Rachel is always cruel to her. I disliked the character of Rachel very much, particularly after a certain secret about her is revealed. Amanda is very outspoken which leads to the walls that arise with friendships. Although some of the scenes with her are the funniest in the book, they are also some of the saddest. When a chance encounter with Kumiko occurs along with a special gift, Amanda begins to reflect differently on herself.
Kumiko serves as an interesting mirror for both George and his daughter. Through her involvement in their lives, they begin to develop some insights into themselves. I thought the conversation between Kumiko and Amanda during the party was a powerful one that helped point out a common flaw in human beings. Personal contentment is a challenge. We often focus in our deficits rather than our strengths. Kumiko serves as an interesting mirror for both George and his daughter. Through her involvement in their lives, they begin to develop some insights into themselves. They learn the meaning of forgiveness.
There is a sense of closure as George finds a different way to express his art and to keep Kumiko’s story alive. The book ends, but the story continues. I hope an illustrated version of The Crane Wife is released someday. Patrick Ness has once again taken a story born from myth and transformed it into something both old and new.
“There were as many truths-overlapping, stewed together-as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story’s life. A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.