George is living out the fairly boring life of a middle-aged divorced “good guy” until one night he hears a strange noise outside his house. He finds a crane, her wing pierced by an arrow; he saves her and she flies away. The next day, a beautiful, somehow old fashioned woman called Kumiko appears outside his print shop, and he falls in love with her almost immediately. George’s adult daughter, Amanda, is mystified and somewhat jealous, living out her own life as a single mother with a small child and feeling as though she’s never quite fit in. In small, significant ways, Kumiko starts to change their lives, but never quite lets them into her own.
A re-telling of a Japanese folk tale, The Crane Wife felt to me like an odd mix of beauty and disappointment. In parts of the book, like the actual stories of the tiles, I felt that I could feel the gorgeous writing and meaning I’d found in Patrick Ness’s other works shine through. In most of the book, though, I felt disappointment, as something I’d expected to love fell apart with every page.
Perhaps this book just fell prey to the fact that I really don’t much like stories set in the “real world”. I may be the only person who just didn’t appreciate the fact that George is relieving himself in the middle of the night when he hears the crane on the very first pages of the book. I can, in a way, see how Ness was trying to juxtapose the ordinary with the fantastic, by bringing George right into our world with one of humanity’s most basic needs alongside the crane’s mysterious call and appeal. I can see that, but it’s something that I wasn’t looking for, and so the book hit a wrong note with me immediately.
Plus, the book is insistent on the fact that George is a good, nice guy. He’s one of these nice guys who seems to vaguely feel like the world owes him something for being nice; he has infinite female friends but he’s just too nice for any of them to love him, and his ex-wife actually says this in the course of the book. I don’t like this stereotype; the world doesn’t owe anyone anything and I actually think that there are plenty of women who would love a nice guy (I married one, after all). I also felt that, as the book went on, he actually proved more or less that he wasn’t really that nice a guy.
Much of the book also felt a little bit like it was trying too hard to say something meaningful. Patrick Ness’s other books are incredible and subtle; A Monster Calls affected me so much that I never actually managed to write anything about it because if anything I felt too much. With this book, I honestly just felt distanced from the characters and the story, almost as though I could see how the weaving was meant to affect me without it actually happening.
That’s not to say it’s all bad; I found some beautiful passages within the book, and I almost felt as though the interludes about the woman and the volcano could have worked as a short story on their own. Here’s one that I marked:
Her hand is raised, ready to fall, ready to end this torment, which she will admit, if only to herself, is as bad for her as it has ever been for him. She loves him and it is impossible. She hates him and that is impossible, too. She cannot be with him. She cannot be without him. And both are burningly, simultaneously true in a way that grinds the cliché into dust. (210)
I actually appreciated the message that we need to trust, to believe that those we love will love us back. But I think some of the meaning of the book slipped through the cracks for me.
I wanted to love this book, but it just didn’t happen, and in the end, I feel more disappointed by that than anything else.
I received this book for free for review.