The Crane Wife, Patrick Ness

The beginning: A man wakes up in the middle of the night and finds a wounded crane on his front lawn. Carefully, he extracts an arrow from its wing so that it can fly away. He tells it his name, George. The next day a woman called Kumiko enters his life, and everything changes.

The end (spoilers in this section only; highlight ’em if you want ’em): I predicted this correctly in my brain. I am not familiar with the story of the Crane Wife, but I feel like anyone who has ever read a fairy tale knew what was going to happen in the end of this story. Kumiko leaves/dies. The end does not specifically say so, but I am confident that this occurs as a result of George’s not being able to control his curiosity about her life apart from him.

The whole: First, a word about fairy tales. I have to tell you that I just absolutely love fairy tales. I love them so much. I love them to infinity. I love their unflinching rules. I love when the decisions of the magic in fairy tales are final, and I love when there are second chances. I love how people keep releasing new retellings of their favorite stories with beautiful, evocative illustrations in watercolor or woodcuts or pen and ink. But mainly I love how totally insane they are:

Not far off [the sausage] met with a dog on the road, who looking upon the sausage as lawful prey, had picked him up, and made an end of him. The bird then lodged a complaint against the dog as an open and flagrant robber, but it was all no good, as the dog declared that he had found forged letters upon the sausage, so that he deserved to lose his life.

Sure. Sometimes that’s the way it goes for a sentient sausage. Later in the story the mouse tries to use its body to stir the soup, the way the sausage always did, and it boils alive; and the bird drowns while trying to get water from the well. This is a real story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

The story of the Crane Wife, from Japan, has the man marrying the crane woman, and she makes very beautiful clothes, so beautiful that they sell for a lot of money and make the man and the crane women wealthy. The crane woman does all this on the condition that the man will never, ever come to watch her while she makes the clothes. But his curiosity (of course) gets the best of him, and he peeks in at her while she’s working. There he sees her transformed again into a crane and pulling out her own feathers to weave into the clothes. When she catches him looking, she flies away. (Cf. East of the Sun, West of the Moon; and the story of Cupid and Psyche; among many others.)

If I had a problem with The Crane Wife, it would be that Patrick Ness does not always quite succeed in blending the logic that fairy tales have (and her creations were so beautiful that every one who saw them fell into a sickness of yearning for them type thing)–which, again, I love and am perfectly willing to accept as part of a story–with the real-life elements. In some areas this does work. The sudden wild success of Kumiko’s tiles feels magical in the way fairy tale riches do, and George’s curiosity and desperation to know her is beautifully set up and played out.

The story works less well when dealing with George’s daughter, Amanda, and her life as a lonely single mother. It feels like Amanda’s part of a separate world, and for a while that was okay. Her story–encounters with the ex who dumped her, struggles to make friends with the unfriendly women at work, worrying about her kid–reminds you that even if George is living halfway in a fairy tale, everyone around him has to be part of the real world. But when Amanda’s story overlaps with Kumiko and gets a little more mystical and fairy-tale-ish, it feels contrived.

Have y’all read this yet? Any thoughts on what makes it not quite work? Or if you think it does work, any thoughts on why I’m wrong?

American cover
American cover
British cover
British cover

Cover report: American cover wins by a lot. Admittedly I am a sucker for art with houses in it, but even setting that aside, I just think the American cover is more visually interesting. I’d pick up the book based on the American cover, and I wouldn’t based on the British cover.

Note: I received this ebook from the publisher via Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.

  • I haven’t read this but I did just yesterday start The Knife of Never Letting Go by Mr. Ness! yay me.

    • Gin Jenny

      YAY YOU! Oh I can’t wait to hear what you think. (I hope you like it.)

  • As much as I loved Chaos Walking, I have to say that his other books have left me, um, WANTING. I’m just not creative enough (or something) to fill in the gaps he leaves. And it’s so ironic because when I last heard him speak he said he doesn’t like NOT tying things up at the end, SO WHICH IS IT, PATRICK?!!!

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahahaha, I laughed out loud when I read this comment. He says he doesn’t like not tying things up at the end? Are you sure that’s what he said? THAT SEEMS INSANE. Does he remember how at the end of More than This, things were, like, super not tied up? (That’s why I liked it!)

  • I think contrived is a good way to put it. The novel really resonated with me thematically and there were some beautiful passages, but it didn’t completely work as a piece of fiction.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yep, agreed. I wasn’t even so crazy about the writing in many parts of it. :/

  • I need to finish the Chaos Walking trilogy someday. I LOVED the first book. But I admit, the whole fairy tale thing generally leaves me cold, so I’d never be likely to pick up The Crane Wife. I always feel somewhat ashamed that I’m not a big fairy tale fan…

    • Gin Jenny

      Don’t feel ashamed! If it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing. But I do recommend the rest of the Chaos Walking trilogy — the books only get better after the first one.

  • The Crane Wife is one of my kids’ favorite fairy tales. Like you, I love them. I plan on picking this up but I already know, I’ll probably feel the same way about the story.

    • Gin Jenny

      Really? I don’t remember reading it when I was a kid, although I know I read a lot of stories with similar themes. Was it in Andrew Lang?

  • buriedinprint

    How interesting: I hadn’t registered that he’d written other books besides Chaos Walking (like Priscilla, above, I’ve yet to read beyond the first book, but I loved it too), but this is the second reference I’ve come across to these other books of his. I’m quite keen to explore. Thanks for the nudge.

    • Gin Jenny

      If you do, can I recommend More than This? I liked it better than this one — it’s very slow to start, but once it kicks into gear, it’s wonderful.

  • I have not read this, but I come bearing the suggestion for musical accompaniment. Have you listened to The Crane Wife by The Decemberists? You must. Colin Meloy tells the best stories! (This is a live version, but the album version rocks too. And no, I’m not even a little musically savvy, but I luuuuuuuuuuurve The Decemberists!)

    • Gin Jenny

      YESSSSSSSSSSSS. I love the Decemberists too, and The Crane Wife is my favorite of their albums. (Well, I liked The King Is Dead quite a bit too. Hard to choose.)

  • Athira

    I have mixed luck with fairy tale-inspired books. I do like the fresh take and all, but very few such books have been convincing to me. I have heard of this fable though and looks like some parts of this book worked and some didn’t.

    • Gin Jenny

      What are some good/bad ones you’ve read in the past? I think I’ve had mixed luck with them too but am struggling to think of any examples.

  • I haven’t rushed out and read anything else by Ness because I wasn’t a huge fangirl of his YA trilogy. I really liked the first book and then sort of waned with the other two. I always seem to lack something when it comes to popular books. 🙁

    • Gin Jenny

      Hey, you like what you like! Everyone has a few crazy-popular books that they weren’t able to get into — I’m currently worried that The Raven Boys is going to be one like that for me.

  • I’ve heard kind of mixed things with this one and as much as I’ve loved Patrick Ness in the past, I’m not sure how I’d feel about it. Strangely enough, I love the American cover, too (when I usually MUCH prefer the UK versions).

    • Gin Jenny

      You know, I had it in my head that I liked UK covers better most of the time, so that’s why I’ve started keeping track of which cover I like better for all the books I read (where I’m able to find two different covers). My plan is to collate the data at the end of the year and produce a definitive statement. :p

  • Okay so I haven’t read this, and I want to try Patrick Ness sometime… but maybe not this one. It sounds a bit… odd. In a confusing, not awesome way.

    • Gin Jenny

      I don’t want this to be your introduction to Patrick Ness! It has good parts but is not his best work. Read The Knife of Never Letting Go instead — although it has flaws, it is nevertheless extremely exciting.

  • I love the Crane Wife, so I really want to read this. Didn’t Molly Bang do a children’s version of this in her signature incredibly cool illustrative style? Ha, just searched it, yes!

    • Gin Jenny

      Pretty! I didn’t know about Molly Bang. Is that her real name?

  • I loved The Chaos Walking series but I haven’t read this or A Monster Calls yet. I am excited to read them but I am nervous they won’t live up to Todd and Viola and all of the feelings!!

  • I shall read it because Patrick Ness.

  • I love the American cover. I love that the house has a light on. It’s so much more welcoming. I almost picked the book up just for the cover but something about the story stopped me. Thanks for the review.

  • I haven’t read this, but there is a certain flair to the British cover, I like it a lot. Plus, it reflects the title of the book.

  • Jenny

    Commenting on this really late (because coming back to blog life) but isn’t it interesting how mostly, women are the ones punished for curiosity in fairy tales, and in this one it’s a man? Usually curiosity for men in fairy tales is rewarded because it’s a quest or adventurousness or something, and the women just get murdered or abandoned. This is a weird one out, sort of. Love this story, though.