Like George Duncan’s daughter Amanda, who once managed, amusingly, to do the entire Louvre in less than an hour, I am not typically the type to be “Moved By Art,” yet The Crane Wife truly touched me. Which is to say—sure—I laughed, and I cried... but before it was over, I also felt like I’d lived another life, and died a little inside.
That’s how powerful Patrick Ness’ new novel is. And it begins as brilliantly as it finishes, with a minor yet monumental moment: a pristine prologue wherein we glimpse something of ourselves alongside something utterly other.
Keenly feeling his advancing years, George awakens in the wee hours one night, naked and needing to pee. Whilst attending to his business in the bathroom, however, he is startled by an unearthly sound: “a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt.” Curious, he follows this call to its point of origin, only to find that a crane has landed in his garden; a wounded one, with an arrow, of all things, shot through one of its wings.
Shocked and appalled, George—a good man through and through—attends as best he can to the bird’s injured appendage... then, leaving a sense of unadulterated wonder in its wake, the crane simply flies away.
The next day, just as our amiable narrator is putting the finishing touches to a paper crane to commemorate, in his way, the dreamlike encounter from the previous evening, an enigmatic woman wearing “a hat that looked both ninety years out of date and a harbinger of the latest thing” walks into the small print shop George operates. He falls head over heels for Kumiko before she’s even introduced herself.
So begins an uncharacteristically passionate affair between gentle George and this ageless, graceful lady. And when Kumiko sees the plain paper crane he has made, she demands that they collaborate on matters of art as well as the heart.
On its own, her art was beautiful, but she wouldn’t stop insisting that it was static. The cuttings of the feathers woven together, assembled in eye-bending combinations to suggest not only a picture (the watermill, the dragon, the profile) but often the absences in those pictures, too, the shadows they left, black feathers woven with dark purple ones to make surprising representations of voids. Or sometimes, there was just empty space, with a single dash of down to emphasise its emptiness. The eye was constantly fooled by them, happening upon shape when blankness was expected. They tantalised, they tricked.
“But they do not breathe, George.”
Oh, but they do when Kumiko starts incorporating George’s occasional cuttings into her feathered flights of fancy! In a sense, then, she completes him, and he her, thus—as their star rises in certain circles—they embark on a sequence of 32 plates telling, in totality, the tale of “a lady and a volcano who were both more and less than what they were called.”
These the author relates as very short yet deeply surreal and equally endearing stories, which work to punctuate the chapters we spend in George’s calming company and those in which we’re with his rather more fraught daughter.
Although he was the hero of his version of the story, naturally, he was also a supporting player in this same story when told by someone else. [...] 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.
Undeniably, The Crane Wife is a greater tale because of Amanda’s part in it. She offers an alternate angle on certain events, yes, but her perspective also serves to enlarge and enrich the overall narrative. Via Amanda, the reader comes to realise that Ness’ novel is so much more than just a witty twist on a tale as old as time—which, given its clarity and quality, I warrant would have been enough.
But The Crane Wife is that and then some. It functions, over and above, as a fable about family, friendship, memory, age and the ways in which we change, all of which subjects the author approaches with disarming frankness, acute insight and such a wealth of warmth and compassion that each chapter made me feel like a more complete human being. Through character and narrative, Ness is able to evoke bona fide emotion—with such ease it has to be seen to be believed—such that from the fantastic first part through the beautiful denouement, The Crane Wife is a revelation for the reader.
It is a novel at its most transcendent, I would add, when the author engages in some way with the extraordinary... however it his devotion to more quotidian moments which makes these passages so commanding. Cannily, this is a contrast Ness makes much of over the course of The Crane Wife.
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. Like when he lost his virginity to the girl with the eczema in his Honours English Class and it had been intensely brief, so briefly intense, that it felt like both of them had left normal existence for an unleashed physical instant. [...] Or not the birth of his daughter, which had been a panting, red tumult, but the first night after, when his exhausted wife had fallen asleep and it was just him and the little, little being and she opened her eyes at him, astonished to find him there, astonished to find herself there, and perhaps a little outraged, too, a state which, he was forced to admit, hadn’t changed much for Amanda.
Patrick Ness’ profile has been growing slowly but surely since he debuted with The Crash of Hennington almost a decade ago. Having written awesome genre novels for an all ages audience ever since—excepting a single short story collection—he has earned a whole legion of younger readers... to whom I fear The Crane Wife may not immediately appeal. But those who don’t demand that the world end endlessly are likely to find the supernatural normalcy of Ness’ acutely observed new book as affecting as any apocalypse.
With finely, frankly crafted characters and a slight yet satisfying narrative, as well as wit, warmth, and oh, such wonder, The Crane Wife is simply sublime: a story as strange, ultimately, as it is true.
The Crane Wife is published by Canongate Books. It is available in the UK March 28.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet about books, too.