The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness

crane wife

What actually woke him was the unearthly sound itself – a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to 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.

This is an opening sentence of which I am most fond. It moves from a shifting poetic register that invokes the infinite to the comic, bodily, and human. If I were to produce a one sentence review of The Crane Wife then this would probably do the job. That I’m going to say a bit more means either that I am being rather self-indulgent or that one sentence rarely does justice to the shifting thing that is a novel. Possibly, a bit of both.

Lives are assemblages of crude elements which signify beyond their constituents; as are stories and just about anything else which matters. In Patrick Ness’ new novel the cripplingly kind George – the subject of the above quotation – rescues an injured crane in the dead cold of a winter night (after having answered the call of his bladder, of course). The next day he meets the mysterious and calming Kumiko when she enters his printing shop. Together they produce art that dazzles: George’s crude cutouts from second-hand books and Kumiko’s remarkable compositions of feathers. They shouldn’t work, but they do. You can probably see where this is heading. You are probably both right and wrong.

A misanthropic, misunderstood, miserable daughter with a Gallic ex-husband and a son she adores; her unpleasant friends, one of whom ends every sentence with that damned upward inflection I recognise from every second undergraduate I meet; and a supporting cast of George’s ex-wife, her new husband, a Turkish shop assistant, and several art dealers: all contrive to mix together anger and loneliness and a simultaneous love and despair for George’s kindness. Each is sketched convincingly – for the most part – without pretension or artifice. Ness has the knack of making one care about his characters by making them very recognisably human, each sharing a fault we suspect ourselves of possessing. (Except maybe the kindness – I really don’t think I’m guilty of that one).

 She is born a breath of cloud

The novel is interspersed with a legend Kumiko tells in 32 tiles of feather and paper. I really liked this legend, told in a more mythic register. A story of passion, destruction, hatred, love, forgiveness, the creation and destruction of the world. It invades dreams, it punctures the novel and resists reduction. Implicit in The Crane Wife is an insistence that differences are constructive and stories polysemous. Ness’ stories exist simultaneously vibrating slightly alongside one another, not jostling for position so much as offering as many meanings as one can handle, and steadfastly refusing to be reduced to any one narrative or signification. At each moment of life a different story might be the one we need, as long as the others are not rejected outright.

It is quite possible that the relentless good-heartedness of The Crane Wife might be wearing to some. When each character has their epiphany, they are really rather similar. Beneath it all they might actually be good people after all. The sentiment is hard to question, but I should have liked some more difference with which to construct my reading of the novel. Although there is a rather enjoyable Twitter joke at one point, so, much like last week’s Dr Who, I can’t complain too much.

Did it matter? George thought perhaps it did, and not in terms of finding the truth or of any hope of discovering what really happened at any given moment. There were as many truths – overlapping, stewed together – as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story’s life. A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.

 The Crane Wife is published  on 4th April 2013 by Canongate.

My thanks to Canongate for this review copy.