The Crane Wife is nominally based on an old Japanese folk tale that Patrick Ness has taken as his starting point and inflected with his own spin. In my line of work, I pay a lot of attention to genres and under those classifications Crane would be considered paranormal romance. The novel’s forays into serious literary territory and its offbeat originality, however, makes it hard to pigeonhole. I was thoughtfully provided with a galley by the publisher.
It’s a realistic novel except when it’s not. In the latter case it’s wild fantasy that takes command of the storytelling. How you take this dreamlike imagery will probably determine whether you like this novel or not. Most readers will either love “The Crane Wife’ or put it down. This is not a novel that can occupy a middle ground.
Despite their many differences, Crane reminded me most of The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. It’s quite possible that Crane will enjoy a corresponding popularity. The two novels critically differ in their attitude toward fantasy. In Tiger, the folklore is always bracketed. It’s what people say. It’s an account of the legends that inform village life in Eastern Europe.
In The Crane Wife, we are in London and the fantasy is on the same level as the realistic story telling. That induces reader’s vertigo. You don’t know how to take what you’re being gobsmacked with and that’s an interesting quality.
George is middle-aged and living alone in a London suburb that seems like every suburb, maybe like your suburb, or a suburb in a Murakami everyman novel like The Windup Bird Chronicle. He’s divorced. Carrying on a family tradition of marital dysfunction, his daughter Amanda is also divorced and living in her own flat with her enchanting half French son, JP.
Everyman stuff that I liked: George reluctantly gets out of bed on a freezing winter’s night to take a leak. He worries that these inconvenient trips to the loo may become more frequent due to his advancing age. While he’s in the bathroom he hears a strange wild keening in his back garden. So far I can relate. If this were my back garden it would be a feral cat or maybe a possum or racoon. I’m in New York City. George, in London, thinks foxes. George steps out into the frigid black cold to investigate…
I’m stopping here.
One of the highlights of The Crane Wife is its description of works of art which consist of collage of feathers and snippets of words cut out of dank, beat up copies of old novels. I apologize for the abstruse reference but that’s what’s in my head: It reminded me of the pictures in The Faerie Queene which you never get to see except in your mind’s eye.
I loved Amanda, George’s daughter, because she’s so dysfunctional, crying compulsively through life, lame in her connections to other people but struggling on anyway. The dark farce of her relations with her co-workers feels like she’s stepping into shit on a rainy day. Amanda always seems to say the wrong thing. And she seems to say “fuck” a million times over in her casual conversations, trying hopelessly to “like” co-workers who maybe she doesn’t really like. Trying to mask her intelligence and outspoken attitude in front of her boss, Rachel, who’s closer to her family than she realizes.
Patrick Ness is a YA writer of considerable distinction. His depictions of children in The Crane Wife are sensitive and caring. This is an adult novel but suffused with the glow of a warm YA read. Towards the end of the novel, the sentiment rises to flood tide and I’m not sure it’s lifting all boats.
You’ll either love the cresting waves of emotion or want to bail. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to head for the lifeboats or not.
But this I’m sure about: The Crane Wife is a folkloric wisdom tale, vivid with an imagination that’s spinning its own way and characters you’ll love even when they screw things up.