The Crane Wife

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The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness, book reviewSome of you may be familiar with the old Japanese folk tale of the crane wife. It tells of a sail maker who one day finds a wounded crane and nurses it back to health; the day after it flies away, a beautiful woman arrives at the sail maker’s house and he falls in love with her. They marry, and are happy but poor. One day, the wife offers to use her skills to make new sails, but she will only do this as long at the husband promises never to watch her work. The sails that she weaves are stunning and the couple begin to make good money, but over time the husband becomes greedy. He demands that his wife makes more and more sails for him to sell, until eventually he must see how she manages to make her creations. He sneaks a look at her weaving, only to see a crane at the loom, plucking feathers from her own body and layering them into the sails. Realising she has been seen, the crane (who is of course his wife) flies away, never to be seen again. It is this cautionary tale that inspired Patrick Ness’ new book The Crane Wife, where the tale is reworked amid modern London.

George is a forty-something American who has lived in the city most of his adult life. A frustrated artist, he has ended up divorced (with an equally divorced daughter) and running a print shop, working on cuttings and collages in the evening in an attempt to satisfy his creative needs. One night, he is awoken by a strange keening in his suburban back garden and goes outside to find a crane with an arrow stuck through its wing. Struck by the strangeness of this sight, George nonetheless manages to soothe the bird and gently remove the arrow that has pierced it. In return, the crane seems to nod its head at him before flying off into the night, leaving George to wonder if he had just dreamed it all.

The next day, after several pages of inconsequential dialogue with his assistant Mehmet, a beautiful woman walks into George’s print shop. “My name,” she says, “is Kumiko.” Kumiko carries with her a small case from which she produces a black tile with a scene carefully laid out in white feathers, and enquires whether George can recommend a way to best frame it. George inevitably falls in love with her and her art, and can only watch in astonishment as Kumiko discovers George’s modest cuttings and builds them into her own tiles, transforming the two separate things into a stunning whole that has a profound effect on those who see them. One tile sells for a large amount of money to a print shop customer. The word spreads and more buyers appear, faster than they can produce new tiles. Soon George and Kumiko are inundated by offers from the art world, but George is still not happy. He is greedy for more of Kumiko, who seems to be holding him at arm’s length and not letting him into her life. And just what does go on in the flat that she will never let him into?

In reading The Crane Wife, I felt like one of the aspiring art buyers that cross George’s path – given the prospect of something beautiful, but ending up disappointed when it wasn’t available. Sections of the narrative were written in a charming, good-natured style that I enjoyed, but the splicing in of sections of arty mythologizing about the crane’s story served as little more than an interruption and a nuisance to me. After a while, I tended to skip or skim these parts to get back to the part of the story grounded in realism, which is where Ness’ strength really lies. Some of the story was indeed enjoyable, but much of it felt like it was trying too hard to say something deep and meaningful. I had to constantly fight the feeling that I should be enjoying this tale, that I should be absorbed and even moved by it, but it finished with me feeling a little unsatisfied. I really wanted to like this book, but I’m afraid for me it just didn’t quite happen.

Not really recommended, although fans of Ness’ earlier work may find something more in this than I did.

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness
Published by Canongate, 2014
With thanks to the publishers for providing me with this review copy.

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Crane Wife, The
by Patrick Ness

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