So, I recently finished reading Patrick Ness’s ‘The Crane Wife’, a delightful novelisation of the old Japanese fable. For a relatively slight book, it took me a surprisingly long time to finish. I found it to be much like Karen Russell’s work in that sense, too beautiful to read for long.
When sentences are poetry, each one can catapult me into dizzying highs, into the clouds and I’ll be sitting on the train with the book open on my lap, just staring into space. As much as I adore that sensation of inspiration, of breathlessness, it can work against the story itself, certainly as far as actually finishing the tale.
But I soldiered through the beauty and happily arrived at the ending. This was my first introduction to Patrick Ness–as far as reading one of his books, I have followed him on Twitter for some time–and needless to say, it will not be my last. I loved this book. It wasn’t perfect (no book it is) but I loved it anyway. It tells the story of mild-mannered print store owner George Duncan, and it begins thusly:
What actually awoke him was the unearthly sound itself – a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to the earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt – but he, being who he was, assumed it was his bladder.
I dare you not to read on, seriously. It’s an insanely magical opening and immediately sets a dreamlike tone. George finds a wounded Crane in his backyard, pierced with an arrow, and manages to free it of the fletched-bullet, whereupon it flies away. Leaving him – and us – to wonder if it was ever real to begin with. That questioning of narrative, of whether what occurs does so as we perceive it or as others do, is a central part of this story.
Later, George recounts an anecdote from his childhood in which he and a friend were hit by a car, and miraculously survived mostly unharmed. What he finds himself curious about now, so many years later, is not the story itself with its improbabilities, but the other people in it, the passersby that rushed to help, his childhood friend, and the driver — did they tell this story too? And if so, in what way?
“What was true, though, and what he thought about often, was that although he was the hero of his own version of the story, naturally, he was also a supporting player in this same story when told by someone else.”
Does that matter? The reality of perception spinning a hundred different versions of a story? George isn’t really sure, but it is a theme that runs through this novel.
“There were as many truths – overlapping, stewed together – as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story’s life. A forgotten story died. A story remembered not only lived, it grew.”
Soon after his Crane incident, George meets Kumiko, a mysterious Japanese woman whom he falls in love with. To everyone’s surprise, it appears she falls for him too, their shared connection being artwork — George’s sculptures cut out of secondhand books, while crude, are transformed when paired with her feathered-landscapes. The nature of that surprise centres around the perception of George as being too nice, too bland, only “70%” of a man. While I’ve seen this disparaged by other readers as just another “Nice Guy Syndrome”, I think that’s a bit of a misread.
The problem isn’t George’s supposed-niceness as it is that he gives too much too quickly. He falls too hard, too fast, and doesn’t seem to care if you know. He’s an open book, easily read, when most people like to read at leisure, to spend their life reading you, being challenged by you. It’s a genuine character flaw, and not one that is ever really resolved, mostly because it’s treated as a good thing. Meanwhile, George and Kumiko’s artwork inspires a frenzy of interest from the art-world, propelling a baffled-George to previously unbelievable levels of financial success.
But that, along with a few other minor storylines, act as little more than the window-dressing for the real story, the narrative-within-the-narrative, as we regularly cross over into pure fable and learn of the Crane’s origins and her love/war with a volcano. Eventually, fable and reality begin to coalesce and intersect, before merging completely for the climax. I don’t want to speak too much about that, or other details — that’s for you to discover.
What I will say is that this novel is beautifully told, as much about a fable as it is about the nature of storytelling itself, as much about art as it is about love and relationships. It doesn’t always hit its marks. Sometimes, Ness pushes the whimsy button a little too hard, and it can feel forced and out of place – these, however, are momentary blips in an outlandishly graceful story that delights in its own poetic flamboyance. It’s also terrifically funny, with a hilarious young Turkish character–which, as a young Arab-Turk myself, I really appreciated.
It made me realise just how lacking people of colour, of my own ethnicity, really are in books, especially of the kind I read — the depth with which I associated with Mehmet actually shocked me. It’s as though I was starved for representation, for a character who might just have a face like my own. It wouldn’t have mattered what kind of character he was, honestly, such was my happiness that he even existed and yet, happily, he also stood on his own two ink-and-flesh feet. That he was also gay made me doubly happy, especially as it was not his defining characteristic.
Given all that, perhaps it’s no surprise I felt that Ness was addressing me personally when, at the end, George fires young Mehmet –an aspiring actor– saying:
“I’m not angry. I’m not even dissatisfied with your work. Well, not much. But if you stay here, you’re going to end up taking over this shop, and that would be the saddest thing that ever happened. You deserve better.”
I probably shouldn’t take my cues from fiction, but it certainly made me feel better about my recent decision to quit my job and focus on my writing and artistic endeavours. This review has gone on a little longer than intended and so I’ll end my rambling here by saying if magic realism is your jam, you should pick up this book. It’s a sumptuous dream with far more going for it than I’ve had the time to outline here.