The new novel by Patrick Ness is based on a Japanese folk tale of the same name. The Decemberists, whom Ness describes as “the greatest band in the world”, have an album based on the same story. Ness is wrong, of course. Mott the Hoople is the greatest band in the world. But I’ll allow that they are no longer extant and will give The Decemberists a listen based on such a glowing recommendation. (In any case, their name reminds me of Ekaterina Sedia’s fabulous Russian steampunk novel, Heart of Iron, which must be a good thing.)
The basic plot of The Crane Wife (both folk tale and novel) is that a kindly man saves the life of a crane, and soon after a mysterious woman enters his life. Thanks to her skills, he becomes very rich, but she remains secretive. Unable to contain his curiosity, the man spies on his benefactor, and learns a terrible truth that causes him to lose her.
During the course of the novel, Ness spins an entirely new version of the story, involving the love between the crane goddess and the volcano god. This provides the fantastical underpinning of his tale. Mortals, it seems, are ever the playthings of the gods. More on that later, but first some background.
All of what I have said this far is true, but it doesn’t help much in understanding the novel. Fortunately I had the pleasure of listening to Ness talk about his book at the splendid Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. That was very informative.
Like many writers, Ness sometimes teaches creative writing. Thankfully I have never been in his class. He’s evil. He gets his students to do really painful things, such as writing about a time when they have done something seriously embarrassing, or writing a scene in which someone they love is the victim of extreme violence.
He’s right though. The very best writers are as good as they are because they are prepared to take that extra step. They don’t necessarily write about themselves and their loved ones, but they do put themselves very much in peril. Look, if you can’t make yourself cry, or shake with fear, with your writing, what chance have you got of making others do those things? Writing is an act of personal bravery.
The idea that Ness is exploring in The Crane Wife is that of the good person as villain. His hero, George Duncan, is a thoroughly decent fellow. Everyone likes him. If he wasn’t such a nice guy he would not have put himself out to save the life of the mysterious bird he found in his garden one night. But George is not perfect. The story of the Crane Wife teaches us that even the best of men can be tempted.
George and his mysterious new woman friend, Kumiko, are brought together by art. He makes pictures by cutting up old paperback novels (Ness says he was inspired in part by the amazing work of Su Blackwell), though George’s work is somewhat different from hers, and nowhere near as good. Kumiko, naturally, makes art from feathers. She is very good, but when her work and George’s is combined something amazing happens.
I couldn’t quite see this. The resulting art, and the effect it has on people who see it, is key to the story. I wanted to be able to visualize it, and could not. So I asked Ness if he could envisage it. He told me that the art is a metaphor for falling in love. You put two, often very different, people together, and magic happens. The sum is so very much more than the parts. Had there been a desk available, my head would have hit it.
Then I thought of Kevin, and understood just how true that metaphor is. The Crane Wife has made me cry rather a lot.
Of course Kumiko cannot tell George where the feathers come from, and he cannot help but wonder about this mysterious and talented woman with whom he has fallen so deeply in love. It is, perhaps, a mistake that the Crane Goddess is fated to repeat, as George’s daughter explains to her:
‘To be human is to yearn, I think,’ Amanda said. ‘To want, to need. What you already have, most of the time. It kind of poisons everything.’
Amanda, by the way, is not a nice person. She is brutally frank, despises most people for their foibles, and loses friends the way most people lose dead skin cells. But she is not necessarily a bad person. She loves her father deeply, and her son, Jean-Pierre. Of course it helps that the kid is delightful in the way that only small children can be:
JP’s smile blazed. ‘I LOVE apples! Pink Ladies are the best! Sometimes I’m a Pink Lady!’
Ness loves children, which I guess is a big plus of you write books for them.
But more than anything else he loves stories. And, like any good writer, he is fascinated by the process of story-telling. Every once in a while Kumiko, as befits a goddess, speaks with the author’s voice. I’d like to leave you with this thought on the nature of stories.
‘No!’ she said. ‘Not explain. 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 suggests 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.’ She sagged a little, as if exhausted by this speech. ‘As it surely, surely would.’
The strap line of The Crane Wife is ‘The extraordinary happens every day’. And so it does. Even though most of us see ourselves as ordinary, decent folk, not great heroes or great villains, our lives may still cross the paths of stories. Unlike George Duncan, we are unlikely to find a wounded goddess in the back garden. We can, however, read about what happened to him when he did. We can see the truth flowing through his story. And the truth is that none of us is perfect. Anyone can be tempted, anyone can make a dreadful mistake. Sometimes we have to live with that without it killing us. And mostly, thankfully, it doesn’t. In reading The Crane Wife we can see how it surely could.
For more information about Patrick Ness, see the SF Encyclopedia.
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