The Crane Wife

Patrick Ness

Published by Canongate 4 April 2013

320pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hilliard Selka


George is a lovely man. Everyone thinks so, especially women, including his ex-wife Clare. Even his ex-wife’s husband is a good friend. George has more women friends than most men, even gay men. His niceness is part of his problem. It makes his stroppy daughter Amanda grind her teeth, even if his grandson JP loves him for it. However, a degree more manliness is required by women wishing to pursue romance – seventy per cent is a practical minimum, by Clare’s reckoning, and she rates George about sixty-five.

The other significant facts about George are that he is a bibliophile and artist. He loves having his books lining the walls, the weight of their paper, the feel of the page in his hand, the significance of a book mark. He can draw, charcoal his favourite medium, but sensing that he is not making progress with his art he turns, as this tale opens, to books, with a scalpel, intending to sculpt meaning out of the pages of, specifically, a crumpled copy of John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies which he’s found out by the bins.

Into this set of circumstances drops a crane – a magnificent wounded bird, in the middle of the night, which George helps to heal in an incident so weird and dreamlike that neither we nor George are quite sure if it was real or an imagined interlude. And the next day an exquisite Japanese woman, Kumiko, walks into George’s print shop. His life is about to change beyond recognition.

The mythology of the woman with the appearance of bird or animal, and indeed of men in various animal guises, exists in human cultures down history and across the world. In Japan it takes the form of the crane wife, a bird disguised as a woman who marries a human man and then, in order to earn a living, plucks out her own feathers to make fine fabric for sale, thus ultimately destroying herself. And when the man discovers who she really is, she must leave him.

The clue to Patrick Ness’s novel is in the title. This is an honest and beguiling retelling of the crane wife tale which weaves the earthily real (most entertainingly, Amanda’s struggle with her temper in her interactions with work colleagues, her son, her ex-husband, her father and Kumiko) and the super-real or dreamlike with such deftness and delight that the real feels magical and the magical completely natural. The end, when it comes, is cataclysmic and heart-rending.

A novel in which you really care about every one of the characters and don’t want the story to end sounds too goody-goody to be true. It is tribute to Ness’s great gifts as a writer that he achieves just this without the drama ever seeming the least saccharine. The lovely George himself survives, as in the legend, but he and indeed we are transformed in the telling.

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