Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Crane Wife - Patrick Ness - guest review

Oh my word, Patrick Ness has done it again.  Like A Monster Calls and his Chaos Walking trilogy, The Crane Wife is a powerful and heart-stirring book with big themes.  It's both wise and funny, immensely readable and very memorable, this is one of those rare books that leaves me sad I've read it and don't still have it to look forward to.  I'm quite sure it will be one of my top 10 favourite books of 2013.

George, middle-aged and divorced, is woken in the night by an unearthly cry, "a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt." On going out into the garden to investigate, he discovers  a large bird, a crane, wounded by an arrow through its wing.  George does what any decent man would do and removes the arrow, leaving the bird free to fly away.  The next day at work, as George mulls over these strange events, the elegant and mysterious Kumiko walks into his life, a woman who, like the cry heard in the night, will lodge in his heart, changing his life forever.

This is the hauntingly beautiful opening to a multifaceted story that's about love, imagination and beauty, and about stories. Central to the book is the love affair between George, a man who represents "safety and softness and kindness and respite" and the elusive Kumiko.  In the middle of his mundane and ordinary life, George finds something utterly extraordinary in his love for Kumiko, a love that alters not only his life, but the lives of those around him as well; and the book has something to teach all of us about love, about its possessiveness and its capacity for forgiveness, about the way love can be both selfish and selfless.

At one level, then, this is a beautiful and timeless love story with all the elements of hope, drama and despair to make your heart ache.  As Kumiko puts it, it's about "the extraordinary [that] happens all the time... Life and happiness and heartache and love."  However, rooted in the Japanese folktale of the Crane Wife, a tale that is interwoven through the story of George and Kumiko, this is also a very artfully constructed story about stories, about the stories shared and private that make up the lives of all of us.  The novel is based on age-old fables and legends, with echoes of George and the Dragon and Leda and the Swan as well as the Japanese crane wife fable, and it's a glorious hymn of praise the eternal power of story-telling, and to the sheer physical beauty of books.  George "loved physical books with the same avidity other people loved horses or wine or prog rock... What was more perfect an object than a book?" Ness also points out how every character in every story (real or fictional), and indeed every story teller, will give a slightly interpretation of the tale and, more than this, will keep the story alive with every telling. As George says, for any given incident "there were as many truths - overlapping, stewed together - as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story's life.  A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew. "  Thus Ness himself not only keeps alive the various fables that weave through The Crane Wife, but he adds in something of his own in the telling to create a new tale.  "Stories shift. They change, depending on who is doing the telling."

Of course, the way a tale is told also matters, and Ness has a genius for telling a story that captures both the reader's mind and his heart.  His writing is acute and devastatingly sharp with hardly a wasted word; it's dramatic, tender and witty, and although there is just the occasional phrase that jars slightly, for me this just highlighted the near perfection of the rest of the book.  All the way through I kept trying in vain to work out quite how he creates such yearningly, achingly beautiful stuff from mere ordinary words.  It's a marvellously alchemical gift, rather like the talent George and Kumiko have for creating mesmerisingly beautiful art from mere feathers and the pages of old books.  Although The Crane Wife is anchored very firmly in the mundane real world of George's prosaic job and narrow life, in "real life with all its disappointments", it opens windows to a world that is magical, timeless and wonderful and it stirred my heart in a way that few books can.  If you've any interest at all in love, beauty and what makes us human, you should read this book and let it work its magic on you.

Reviewed by Penny Tattersall

Published by Canongate

Thanks very much to the publisher for a review copy of this novel.

Many thanks to Penny for reading and reviewing this novel for The Little Reader Library

1 comment:

  1. I can't believe that I never made the connection between Patrick Ness writing A Monster Calls and Chaos Walking until this post! Looking forward to another from him!


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