There have been moments in George’s life that seem hyperreal but also very strange. They are described like waking dreams: everything is weird but he accepts what comes without question. The Crane Wife, by Patrick Ness, begins with one of these moments. George hears a keening cry from outside and discovers a large crane with an arrow through its wing. The next day, a woman named Kumiko appears at his print shop. George and Kumiko are immediately attracted to each other. The Crane Wife borrows heavily from “Tsuru no Ongaeshi” and other Japanese myths. Even without the crane’s appearance at the beginning of the book, the short interludes in which a crane-woman falls in love with and spars with a volcano let us know that George has wandered into a strange story and that his life will never be the same again.
George knows he’s a lucky man when he and Kumiko start dating and creating art. All his life, he’s been told he’s too kind, too soft. His ex-wife left him because he was just too nice. Kumiko, however, loves George’s kindness. She tells him more than once that he’s a refuge for her, though she won’t tell him what she’s running from. She just tells him that her life has been hard up until now. She also won’t let anyone see her work as she creates stunning collages from feathers. She only lets him see the art once it’s ready for him to add his piece, a shape cut from a used book.
As George and Kumiko grow closer, the narrative’s perspective widens to include Amanda, George’s daughter, and JP, his grandson. Amanda is always angry. She’s angry at bicyclists, her friend who speaks with a rising inflection all the time, her ex-husband, the world. Both George and Amanda are unhappy and lonely—Amanda’s just a lot more vocal about it. It doesn’t take long before Amanda gets pulled into George and Kumiko’s story and, like George, Amanda doesn’t really question the less-than-natural things that have been happening around them.
The interludes help provide context for Kumiko’s actions and some of the things she says about her art. Once an artist’s work leaves their hands, it’s up to the viewer or reader or listener to make sense of it. Kumiko resists all of George’s attempts to figure out what their collaborative art means, especially when George tries to talk about the “ending” to the “story” related in their art and what it means. Kumiko says:
Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggest other versions, versions that exist in parallel. No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flows. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us. (141-142*)
In the context of the folkloric interludes, this speech makes sense. I’m sure George was bewildered at the time, not yet realizing that he’d blundered into someone else’s story. Without the interludes, this speech still says something interesting about art. Meaning, Kumiko tells us, is not fixed—not even by the artist or writer or composer.
I wasn’t sure about this book when I first started it. George really is too nice, but only in his passivity. I enjoyed reading about a polite protagonist, but I can see how other people would be bored by him. His daughter is his polar opposite in temperament. Reading about both of their personality could cause whiplash. Once the story started to settle and Kumiko started to have an effect on the pair of them, The Crane Wife became a beautiful, moving tale of passion, the imperatives of certain stories, betrayal, sacrifice, and forgiveness. This is a remarkable novel.
* From the 2013 kindle edition from Penguin Press.