Although Patrick Ness has been writing fiction for well over a decade, his success really began with The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008), the book that would become the first of the Chaos Walking trilogy. Set at some indeterminate point in the future, The Knife of Never Letting Go tells the story of a boy born into a society torn apart by people’s sudden ability to hear each other’s thoughts. Distinguished by its emotional directness and its driving, almost brutal rhythms, it won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and – perhaps more significantly – found an eager audience amongst both children and adults.
The Knife of Never Letting Go was quickly followed by two sequels, The Ask and the Answer (2009) and Monsters and Men (2010) – the latter won Ness his first Carnegie Medal – and A Monster Calls (2011), a visually stunning illustrated novel based on a story outline by the late Siobahn Dowd about a boy struggling with his mother’s death, which won Ness his second Carnegie Medal. All of them were distinguished by the same exaltation of raw feeling as The Knife of Never Letting Go.
The Crane Wife, Ness’ first novel for adults since The Crash of Hennington (2003), begins with a moment pitched somewhere between comedy and wonder. In the small hours of the morning, 48-year-old George Duncan is woken unexpectedly. It is a sound that has awoken him – an ‘unearthly sound … a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt’ – but George, being who he is, assumes it is his bladder.
Having risen and stepped out into the cold, George realises his mistake when the sound comes again, tearing at his heart ‘like a dream gone wrong’ and impelling him to race out of the house into the yard, where he finds a great white crane glowing in the darkness, its wing pierced by an arrow. His fingers numb from the cold and terrified he will harm the bird, George manages to snap the arrow and draw it out. Free, the bird looks at him for long enough for George to introduce himself (‘“My name,” he said, “is George.” He said it to the crane’); then, opening its wings, it rises into the sky and disappears.
The next day a woman called Kumiko appears in the print shop owned and operated by George. Smaller than average and carrying a suitcase, she possesses a strangely indeterminate beauty, and bears with her a selection of exquisite art works she wants copied. At first, George is not quite certain what the art works are, except that they are of figures – a dragon, a phoenix, ‘a stampede of horses cascading down a hill’ – which have been attached to painted backgrounds. But on closer examination, he realises the figures are not drawings or watercolours or prints on pieces of card; instead, they are cuttings intricately constructed out of slices of feather. Although George is bewitched by the pictures, Kumiko is more circumspect in her judgement, declaring they ‘lack something’. But as they are speaking, she notices a paper crane George has cut from an old paperback book and, asking whether she might ‘perform an impertinence’, she places the crane alongside a dragon in one of her own creations. Despite – or perhaps because of – its clumsiness, George’s cutting somehow completes the image, a fact underlined by the appearance a few days later of a collector prepared to pay an unfeasibly large amount for the picture. Other buyers follow, who are prepared to pay even more for Kumiko’s art works. George – who Kumiko insists take half of the money – becomes rich, although in a way his newfound wealth is secondary to his growing love for Kumiko.
Alongside the story of George and Kumiko’s love affair, the novel presents two other narratives: one concerning George’s daughter, Amanda, a woman isolated by her sharp tongue and overwhelming anger with the world in general; and a second, more fragmentary narrative about a crane and a volcano that is shaped by the stories behind the suite of images Kumiko creates as the novel progresses.
Readers familiar with Japanese folklore (or indeed the Portland-based band, The Decemberists, whose 2006 album of the same name lends The Crane Wife its epigraph) will recognise the story as a contemporary version of the tale known as ‘Tsuru Nyōbō’, or ‘The Crane Wife’, in which a poor man – usually a woodcutter, but sometimes a sail-maker or simply a farmer – saves a crane that has been shot by a hunter by drawing an arrow from its wing and setting it free. A few days later, a beautiful woman arrives on his doorstep seeking shelter from a snowstorm and the man takes her in. Despite their love, the couple are so poor they barely have enough to eat, so one day the woman offers to weave silk for them to sell, but only on condition she is allowed to do so in private. The man agrees, and soon the wife is weaving clothes of impossible beauty, he is selling them for a huge amount, and they are both rich (in some versions it is magic sails she sews).
But as the months pass, the man grows curious. In some versions, his curiosity is prompted by his wife growing ill; in others it is simply the same natural curiosity that drives Bluebeard’s wives to peer into the locked room in their monstrous husband’s castle, or the shoemaker and his wife to spy upon the elves in their workshop, or the husband to untie the ribbon around his wife’s neck. Either way, the day comes when the man looks into the room while his wife is working, and there he sees not her but the crane he rescued long before, crafting cloth by plucking her own feathers. Realising she is discovered, the crane flies away, leaving the man alone.
How one reads this story is an interesting question, for like many folk tales it seems to become more puzzling the closer one looks at it. Is it a story about love? About transformation? About the mystery of the forbidden room? Is it relevant that the story – one of many in Japanese folklore featuring men who marry animal brides or fox-ghosts – so neatly reverses the European tradition of folk tales about animal grooms one encounters in stories such as ‘Snow White and Rose Red’, ‘The Seven Swans’ and ‘The Frog Prince’, most of which feature animal husbands who are beastly or monstrous? What significance are we to attach to the presence of the crane, a bird with considerable meaning in both Japanese and Chinese folklore and literature? And what are we to make of the actions of the wife herself, her plucking of her own feathers and subsequent release? Did she ever love the man, or was she simply bound to him in payment for his kindness?
In one sense, The Crane Wife acknowledges these ambiguities, both in the way its complex structure interleaves different versions of the same story and, more explicitly, in its frequent reminders of the way the meanings of stories are not set, their subjects and their implications instead existing in a constant state of flux, shifting according to who tells them, why and when. Actions are constantly scrutinised, their meanings unpicked and reconstructed. They reveal that it is not just the stories we tell but our selves that are constantly in flux.
Yet these concerns are eventually subordinated to a larger exploration of the tension between creation and destruction, and of the way loss and pain are inextricably connected to love and happiness. In this respect, The Crane Wife explicitly echoes Japanese notion of mono no aware, or the beautiful transience of things, an association made concrete in Kumiko’s artwork and in the novel’s suggestion that we must let go of the things we love in order to truly live.
Given the novel’s emphasis upon stillness and beauty – and indeed its explicit invocation at one point of Henry James and the flawed vessel in The Golden Bowl (1904) – one might expect it to embody some of these same qualities. But in fact the reverse is true. Like Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy and A Monster Calls, The Crane Wife is a surprisingly shouty book. Ness has never been a writer to leave a metaphor implicit or an implication unsaid. Time and again, one feels him stepping in, speaking through his characters, as if anxious we might not understand:
No … Not explain. Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A 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.
In itself, this is not a problem: Ness is an intelligent writer and most of what the novel has to say about love and loss is wise enough. Yet it does point to one of the central problems with The Crane Wife, which is that for a novel that often strives for pure affect, a fair amount of it is surprisingly unaffecting. To some extent this problem is inherent in the material, or more precisely, in the mismatch between the novel’s folkloric and realistic elements. This mismatch is most acute in the novel’s dealings with Kumiko, and with Kumiko and George’s relationship. Because Kumiko is never quite a realistic character, her relationship with George, and in particular George’s passion for her, never really comes to life. The mismatch is also present in the descriptions of the responses to Kumiko’s artwork and the Stendhalian raptures they induce, raptures no amount of prompting can reproduce in the reader.
The problem is thrown into stark relief by Ness’ depiction of George’s daughter Amanda, whose self-defeating anger and despair are brilliantly and painfully rendered, and which is, in many ways, the most impressive thing about the novel. In contrast to George and Kumiko, Amanda always feels uncomfortably but powerfully alive, her presence grounded in a reality that feels both immediate and immediately recognisable.
Perhaps because of this, the novel turns to the writing to achieve its goals. Ness is an extremely forceful writer, and his prose has always depended upon a sort of heady rush, an attempt to give shape to the constant onrush of ideas and thought and movement. In the Chaos Walking books, much of this work is done by the constant intrusion of overheard thoughts, a technique that lends the books a raw, naked emotional brutality by constantly crowding the reader with the presence of other, often hostile minds. Something similar is also true of A Monster Calls, a book that relies upon the rhythms of call and answer that drives the boy’s encounters with the monster, and which achieves much of its considerable emotional effect by virtue of, rather than in spite of, the uncomfortably programmatic way it replicates the processes of loss and acceptance inherent in the process of grieving.
So too The Crane Wife, which – perhaps ironically given its insistence on the delicacy of the images at its centre and the elusiveness of story – seems to owe more to the volcano than the crane. There is a lot of self-conscious urging and pushing in the prose, a tendency that is most obvious in the book’s use of italics for emphasis and the almost constant accumulation of clauses (‘it welled him up with entirely unexpected, in fact frankly astonishing tears’; ‘its programming could readjust itself in an instant, faster than an instant, could anticipate your coming’; ‘she’d tell a judge he slapped her’).
Perhaps because it is being asked to carry too much of the load, this stylistic maximalism yields mixed results in the more fantastical sections of the novel. Yet elsewhere, particularly in the sections set in a more recognisable everyday world, it is considerably more successful. As his depiction of characters such as Amanda and George’s assistant at work, Mehmet, makes clear, Ness is an astute observer of human behaviour with a genuine gift for social comedy, qualities that are given real force by the energy of his writing. Indeed, perhaps ironically for a novel in which the fantastic is so present, it is the simpler, more quotidian moments – in particular the various workplace relationships – that feel the most vivid and alive.
In the end what is most interesting about The Crane Wife is not what it has to say to us, but what it tells us about ourselves. To contemporary eyes what is most striking about the story – and indeed most folk and fairy tales – is its air of overwhelming strangeness. We are so immersed in the conventions of psychological realism, so immured to its assumptions, that it is difficult not to be startled by the sparseness of detail, the lack of clear meaning, the curiously hermetic feel of the whole.
To what extent these qualities inhere in the original story is an interesting question. But whatever the answer, it is clear that once they are severed from their ethnographic and anthropological context there is a tendency to forget that these contexts ever existed, and instead convince ourselves that what we are seeing is something primal, a set of deep symbols at play. It is an assumption that is never far away in most contemporary treatments of folk tales. Cherry-picked and stripped of their original contexts, they have been redeployed in an attempt to meet a deeper longing for meaning. It is not for nothing that the miracle of the crane’s appearance takes place in a London suburb ‘celebrated for its blandness’, or that the mystery of Kumiko’s presence fills George and Amanda’s lives with wonder. Nor indeed that Ness’ novel can also be read as the latest addition to the increasingly extensive library of books and films that uncritically celebrate the sentimental discourse about story and storytelling that now permeates so much work of a fantastical bent.
Sentimental or not, the longing they speak to is real, as is our desire for symbols and stories capable of articulating it. And whatever its flaws, The Crane Wife manages the considerable feat not just of giving voice to this longing, but of understanding it, not as an emptiness or a failing, but as a necessary part of life.