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The 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.

“George Duncan is an American living and working in London.  At forty-eight, he owns a small print shop, is divorced, and lonelier than he realizes.  All of the women with whom he has relationships eventually leave him for being too nice.  But one night he is woken by an astonishing sound—a terrific keening, which is coming from somewhere in his garden.  When he investigates he finds a great white crane, a bird taller than even himself.  It has been shot through the wing with an arrow.  Moved more than he can say, George struggles to take out the arrow from the bird’s wing, saving its life before it flies away into the night sky. The next morning, a shaken George tries to go about his daily life, retreating to the back of his store and making cuttings from discarded books—a harmless, personal hobby—when through the front door of the shop a woman walks in.  Her name is Kumiko, and she asks George to help her with her own artwork.  George is dumbstruck by her beauty and her enigmatic nature, and begins to fall desperately in love with her.   She seems to hold the potential to change his entire life, if he could only get her to reveal the secret of who she is and why she has brought her artwork to him.”

The Crane Wife is a beautiful novel in many respects; there were many images and descriptions that made me pause and read over them again. One might say that it lacks focus, but I didn’t care; I was just absorbed by the deceptively simple story and Ness’s beautiful language. The Crane Wife is quite different from More Than This, the other Ness novel I read recently. More Than This was scary and chilling; The Crane Wife, while sad, was a much easier novel to read. One was gritty and disturbing, the other luminous and gorgeous. However, they’re both quite good.

I pulled quite a few quotes and images from the very first section, which was the most stunningly beautiful of all. Here’s one: “But if it wasn’t a dream, it was one of those special corners of what’s real, one of those moments, only a handful of which he could recall throughout his lifetime, where the world dwindled down to almost no one, where it seemed to pause just for him, so that he could, for a moment, be seized into life…But this, this moment here, this moment was like those and more so. The gravely injured bird and him in a frozen back garden that could have been the borders of the known universe for all he knew. It was in places like this that eternity happens. ” (pg. 11 in the ARC). Looking back, some of those phrases are a bit odd, but not necessarily in a bad way. Later, the crane’s neck is described as “curved against his coat like a question mark.” I really loved that simile.

As I mentioned when reviewing More Than This, Ness clearly thinks very highly of himself, but he’s not totally wrong. However, The Crane Wife was a bit pretentious; it seemed to repeatedly try to emphasize how deep it was, and as other reviewers have said, make certain key points about truth and knowledge and love over and over again.

There’s also a great description of books: “He loved physical books with the same avidity other people loved horses or wine or prog rock. He’d never really warmed to ebooks because they seemed to reduce a book to a computer file, and computer files were disposable things, things you never really owned. He had no emails from ten years ago but still owned every book he bought that year. Besides, what was more perfect an object than a book? The different rags of paper, smooth or rough under your fingers. The edge of the page pressed into your thumbprint as you turned a new chapter. The way your bookmark – fancy, modest, scrap paper, candy wrapper – moved through the width of it, marking your progress, a little further each time you folded it shut.” (pg. 60). I loved that paragraph; I’m just going to hope that “as you turned a new chapter” will be changed to “as you turned a new page” in the final copy. Or perhaps Ness meant chapter; I don’t know.

Another great sentence: “She was almost a half-remembered dream, yet not.” (93). Really, this book is just populated with noteworthy phrases and lines and paragraphs.

To me, the only real reason that The Crane Wife is labelled as an adult book is because there’s a fair amount of sex. But mature younger people can definitely handle it, and at least in terms of vocabulary, it’s not a difficult book.

The Crane Wife is full of sad, sad people drifting through life. Then the mysterious Kumiko shows up and changes everything. This book is so dreamy; at times there’s realism, but most of the time it’s like a wonderful fantasy. It did have a sense of urgency though, what with all the secrets surrounding who Kumiko was. I knew, obviously, that she was connected to the crane that George half believes was a dream, yet I wasn’t sure exactly how, whether in a fantasy sense she was actually the crane or if in a realistic sense she was just a representation of the crane or vice versa.

The Crane Wife isn’t a great novel or one of my favorites, but it’s certainly an intriguing and lyrical novel, worth reading. I was initially attracted by the retelling of a Japanese fable; I stayed for the beauty of the story and writing. It may lack subtlety, and ultimately I’m not sure whether I liked it more than Ness’s young adult books, but I did enjoy the book a great deal. I received an ARC from the publisher; The Crane Wife comes out January 23rd in the US; it’s already available in Britain. I would definitely recommend it.

305 pages.

Rating: ****

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