Author: Patrick Ness
Genre: Magical Realism, Fantasy
Publisher: Canongate Books
Publication date: April 4 2013
Hardcover: 320 pages
The extraordinary happens every day…
One night, George Duncan – decent man, a good man – is woken by a noise in his garden. Impossibly, a great white crane has tumbled to earth, shot through its wing by an arrow. Unexpectedly moved, George helps the bird, and from the moment he watches it fly off, his life is transformed.
The next day, a kind but enigmatic woman walks into George’s shop. Suddenly a new world opens up for George, and one night she starts to tell him the most extraordinary story.
Wise, romantic, magical and funny, The Crane Wife is a hymn to the creative imagination and a celebration of the disruptive and redemptive power of love.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): eBook (Kindle)
Why did I read this book: We are huge fans of Patrick Ness here at Casa de Smugglers. Thea is die-hard fan of his Walking Chaos trilogy and Ana has still to recover from reading the incredibly beautiful A Monster Calls.
“The Crane Wife” is an old Japanese folktale. Its most common version tells the story of a poor sail maker who one day finds a wounded crane and nurses it back to health. After he releases the crane, a beautiful woman appears on his doorstep. He falls in love with her and they marry. Their marriage is happy but they are poor so his wife offers to weave these wonderful sails they can sell but only if he agrees never to watch her weaving them. They make a lot of money, the husband becomes increasingly greedy, asking his wife to weave more and more. He eventually breaks his promise and peeks in to see his wife’s working only to discover that at the loom, a crane is doing the work, plucking feathers from her own body and weaving them into the sails. The crane – who was of course, his wife – flies away and never returns. This tale can be interpreted as a cautionary tale about the dangers of greed, a melancholy story about love lost, a sad account of promises broken and lines crossed.
Patrick Ness’ The Crane Wife is a retelling of that tale, set in modern-day Britain.
American expat George wakes up one day in the middle of the night to find a wounded crane in his garden. Incredibly moved by the vision and the pain the beautiful crane is in, he helps the bird, removing an arrow from his wing. The next day, an enigmatic woman called Kumiko walks into George’s printing shop and his life is transformed. They fall in love and there is whirlwind romance but also communion through art. Kumiko creates wonderful artwork of scenes and characters made of feathers but thinks they lack a certain something. When she sees the cuttings George makes out of pages from old books, she realises their potential. By combining her scenes and George’s cuttings, Kumiko composes extraordinary art that deeply move not only George but also an increasing number of people who offer ludicrous amounts of money for the pieces. George grows increasingly greedy and this is where Ness departs from the original story, for his greed is not for money but greed born out of love, a want for more knowledge about Kumiko, who remains elusive and mysterious to him despite their growing love. In fact, the more time they spend together, the less he seems to know Kumiko. In the meantime, the two work together on a series of art pieces that tell a story that is both myth and reality.
Their story runs parallel to that of George’s daughter Amanda. Amanda is a troubled young woman, whose anger and cutting remarks make it difficult connecting to friends and family. Her tale is a tale of self-acceptance and it too, is connected to Kumiko’s presence in their lives.
There is a moment in the book when its protagonist George expounds on the nature of memory and storytelling. On how different people might retell one story in a variety of ways and how this matters not because there is hope of finding out “what really happened” but because:
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.
This idea is a very strong presence in Ness’ tale: it shapes both George and Kumiko’s lives, it is repeated ad nauseam throughout the book (more on the issue of repetitiveness later) and is used by the author himself when writing the actual narrative. Toward the ending, for example, one single event takes place and its very existence is presented as a possible result of a myriad of actions.
It is possible to take this idea and expand on it: as a reviewer and as a reader, my interpretation and reading of The Crane Wife is only one among many and are definitely shaped by who I am and my experience as a reviewer. To me, The Crane Wife turned out to be a combination of several different things that rubbed me the wrong way.
Fairytales and folktales are usually concerned with the “what happens next”, with story and themes rather than character development. In fact most of the time, characters in fairytales/folktales are archetypes i.e. the Mother, the Father, the Princess, the Crane Wife. When reading a retelling, I expect more. I expect more from its themes, its story and I definitely expect more from its characters.
In The Crane Wife, a lot of the original folktale has been changed, reshaped to fit a more contemporary Western setting and its themes re-imagined. But the strongest connection to the original Japanese story remains the crane wife herself, Kumiko.
I have nothing against retellings of stories in different settings, of bringing the Japanese folktale of the Crane Wife to the West (the more people reading these stories, the better, and I like the variation from the usual western fairy tales). That said, the fact that the only magical, “mysterious”, “alluring” character is still a Japanese woman while everyone else of note is white is terribly problematic to me because it definitely plays into the “allure of the East” trope.
In fairness, and going back to different readings, there are other possible interpretations for this: Kumiko, despite her name and the fact that most characters do think she is Japanese, is often presented as a mythological figure that is ageless, timeless, placeless. Her mysteriousness is the very topic of the story, and it is possible to argue that she is only “mysterious” because those who interact with her are not satisfied with how she presents herself – as a quiet woman, who wishes to keep her own private thoughts. A secondary PoC character do call out George’s attraction to Kumiko thusly:
‘This isn’t some mysterious allure of the East thing you’ve got with this woman, is it? Because I’d find that, like, amazingly offensive.’
Although I find that more of a deflecting tongue in cheek comment, perhaps a nod to concerned readers like me. Especially when that line is followed by:
‘You’re from the East, Mehmet, and I find you neither mysterious nor alluring.’
I personally do not think any of this mitigates the problem because Kumiko is never truly developed in a meaningful way and the story is strongly George’s and Amanda’s.
Speaking of George there is an incredibly annoying emphasis on how much of a “nice guy” George is. It overwhelms the narrative sometimes. George is:
a pleasant enough man, but lacking that certain something, that extra little ingredient to be truly worth investing in. It was a mistake women often seemed to make. He had more female friends, including his ex-wife, than any straight man he knew. The trouble was they’d all started out as lovers, before realising he was too amiable to take quite seriously. ‘You’re about sixty-five per cent,’ his ex-wife had said, as she left him.’ And I think seventy is probably my minimum.’ The trouble was, seventy per cent seemed to be every woman’s minimum.
I have a predisposition to absolutely abhor characters like George who, because of their decency, expect to be rewarded by the universe with the love of a good woman. One can definitely argue that this is George’s view of himself but every single character remarks on George’s nice-guy status. And the universe and the narrative of The Crane Wife actually do attempt to reward him for that.
There is some real beauty in The Crane Wife though – there is beauty in how Amanda’s story is written, her arc one of self-knowledge and acceptance. There is beauty in the way that the story acknowledges that George’s greed for truly knowing Kumiko’s as perfectly understandable, perfectly human. Wanting to truly know someone can be a huge part of falling in love but there is also the question about what motivates that type of greed. The question of knowing the other can also be read as attempting to owning someone and in this scenario also effectively disrespecting the other’s own momentum and imposed limits.
But those moments of beauty and truth are buried under the repetitiveness strain of its themes – forgiveness, power of storytelling, greed – and the odd bluntness in which they are presented. Kumiko repeats George’s and the author’s point:
‘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 flows.
And then George explicitly summarises:
he had demanded. He had been stupidly, stupidly greedy for knowledge of her. And he had found out. He knew her. But wasn’t that what love really was, though? Knowledge? Yes. And then again, no.
For a story that spends a lot of time attempting to be elusive as well as allusive, these moments of tactless “deep” lesson-teaching are pretentious and eye-rolling.
It is funny that I found A Monster Calls, Ness’ book for children, a much more nuanced and subtle story than his book for adults. Go figure.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
‘I’m willing to wait. I told you I was willing to wait for anything.’
She looked at him seriously now.
‘You hand me too much power, George. It is not a burden, but it might become one, and I do not wish that.’ She touched his arm. ‘I know you do it out of your abundant kindness, but there may come a day when both you and I would wish that I treat you less carefully. And that must remain a possibility, George. If there is never a chance of hardness or pain, then softness has no meaning.’
Rating: 4 – Bad but not without some merit
Reading Next: The Murders of Richard III by Elizabeth Peters
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