Book review: The Crane Wife - Patrick Ness
The Crane Wife begins with the protagonist, George, waking in the middle of the night and finding a crane in his garden. The crane has an arrow sticking through one of its wings, so George helpfully removes it. The next day a woman named Kumiko enters his print shop. They hit it off and soon start collaborating artistically using George’s paper cuttings, something he considered a mere hobby up until this point, combining them with feather collages made by Kumiko. Unexpectedly, they cause a buzz in the art world and soon start receiving extravagant bids for their works.
The Crane Wife is a loose interpretation of a Japanese myth. The narrative of the book follows George and his relationship with the ever mysterious Kumiko, as well as his always angry daughter Amanda, interspersed with a mythical narrative involving a crane and volcano struggling against their relationship.
And that’s the man pin of this novel – relationships. Both romantic and platonic/familial. George himself is, as the novel never hesitates from telling us, is a nice guy – too nice. He has had a number of relationships, but they have all ended because of his niceness – it turns out to not be enough. But he is still close friends with his ex-wife (Amanda’s mother) and inspires loyalty in his friends. His relationship with his daughter is explored, as well as her relationship with her ex-husband, ended because of her anger issues.
It is an engaging read. I found myself intrigued by Kumiko’s character, despite there being no big surprises with it, and the relationships between the different characters were interesting, and I did walk into work five minutes late rather than stop halfway through the climax. But it is not a great book. The problem lies in the style of narrative. Ness has tried to present a narrative set in the present day with a kind of mundane magic realism. This could work if the characters were fleshed out more, but the characters are in some ways two dimensional - similar to those in mythological stories. George’s main thing is that he’s nice and it holds him back. Angela is angry. Her colleague Rachel puts on a persona to fit in with people’s expectations. And is very annoying (she speaks in questions? Like this? Which is meant to be annoying? But it really is? And makes you want to throw the book across the room?). Kumiko is mostly symbolic and there to drive the narrative and provoke the other characters’ realisations. Ness mainly focuses on a main trait for all of the characters, not rounding them out much further. This means that they don’t convince as people and fail to get under the readers skin.
Because of this, the book becomes lost somewhere between myth and a straightforward contemporary novel. It’s an enjoyable read, and I found it thought provoking, but it never really manages to sink its teeth in – something that has never been an issue with Ness’ other books.