Thursday 28 September 2017

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

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.

Goodreads Description

Patrick Ness is better known for his books for young people, especially A Monster Calls and 
the Chaos Walking Trilogy. Now he has turned his hand to adult fiction and more particularly to magic realism. 

The Crane Wife is a modern take on a Japanese fairytale. In the original story a poor sailmaker helps an injured crane by pulling an arrow from her wing. The next day a beautiful woman arrives at his home, and soon becomes his wife.  Ness's tale is set in Britain with the central character, George, an owner of a printing company. In the original the sailmaker's marriage is destroyed by his financial greed, in Ness's it is his desire to know everything about his Japanese wife that is destructive. George is a nice but rather ineffective man who has a habit of losing women. It is his insecurity that undermines the relationship.  Also appearing in the book is George's daughter, Amanda, who in many ways has inherited George's insecurity but expresses it in aggression. 

George and his crane wife together make beautiful pictures combining George's cut paper designs and her feather art. These become highly collectible and suddenly George has an unexpected fame. The pictures form a Japanese story, which in turn is told as intermissions throughout the book. 

The Crane Wife is about many things. And one of them is of course storytelling.  

"No!" she said, suddenly sharp. "Not explain. Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. The 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."

The idea of other parallel versions is brought out in Ness' treatment of the fire at the climax of the book. Five times Ness writes - the fire began like this, each time giving a different version. We are left to make up our own minds. The book, like much magic realism, is full of ambiguity. We cannot be sure there is magic involved. There are alternative explanations. 

What did I make of this novel? Much as I wanted to love the story, and there were times when it was lovely, beautifully written, and thought provoking, I found it somehow lacking. Partly it is the problem of having the central character who is good and rather boring, partly it was a problem with the pacing, which was not helped by the crane wife intermissions. The ending really picked up the pace, but until that point the story driver didn't do it for me.