The Crane Wife is Patrick Ness’ return to adult fiction after writing some amazing young adult fiction I have loved.
In The Crane Wife, Ness updates the old Japanese folktale of a crane returning a favor to a helpful man. You can read a summary of the old folktale on Wikipedia, but I suggest you ignore it and dive into Ness’ novel because it is richer than the tale, even if it doesn’t completely come together.
In Ness’ version, shop owner George, an American living in London, is awoken late one evening to a strange cry coming from his garden. Upon investigating, he discovers a large crane, too large to seem real, who needs help removing an arrow from its wing.
Days after George helps the crane, a beautiful woman, Kumiko, enters his shop. Even with how mysterious and secretive Kumiko is, George falls in love with her quickly and they start spending a lot of time together, especially on their artwork. George tears the pages of old books to make beautiful designs, similar to those seen on the American cover of The Crane Wife, while Kumiko uses gorgeous, colorful feathers to make her creations. When they put their designs together they become very popular and art collectors around London hound the couple, demanding more pieces.
Besides George and Kumiko, we also get the tale of George’s daughter Amanda, my favorite character in the book. Amanda puts her foot in her mouth often, which makes her completely entertaining, but it also makes her quite awkward in friendships and relationships. Her volatile relationship with her ex-husband is really the heart of the story for me, much more so than with George and Kumiko.
There are many things I loved about this book. I love the character development of George and Amanda where we hear stories from their past, like George getting run over by a car and Amanda ruining “The Wizard of Oz” for a friend. I love how many assumptions people throw at George when they find out he’s American. The poetic first chapter of the book when George helps the crane is quite beautiful. And some of my favorite things are the humorous Hemingway-esque chapters that are just conversations between two or three people, with no he said she said.
But even with all these things I love, this didn’t come together for me as much as I had hoped. The book jumps between stories about George and Amanda to folktales written by Kumiko that I could never connect with. And maybe I couldn’t connect with those chapters because I could never connect with Kumiko.
Every other character is quite well developed, but I never knew Kumiko and couldn’t understand why everyone was spellbound by her. I know this comes from a folktale and it is magical, but I couldn’t buy Kumiko’s alluring ability, probably because she’s never front and center. Kumiko is on the sidelines, always agreeing to what everyone says, making them adore her, but as a reader this is completely boring. I didn’t see her do much of anything, so I couldn’t declare love for her and couldn’t understand why everyone else could.
I cannot write this book off, however, because there are really beautiful passages to The Crane Wife, some that I instantly re-read. The story as a whole is where I’m having issues. It’s too disjointed and not a compelling enough draw.
Please don’t let this be the first Patrick Ness book you read because it is not his best.