“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.”
The opening sentence of The Crane Wife might be my favourite first sentence in a book. Of all time. It is perfect. It’s dreamy and winding and romantic, and it ends with a smashing to earth – an insistent bladder. All those things are what makes it perfect, because that is The Crane Wife in a nutshell: mystical and romantic, but deeply grounded too. It’s the story of George, a good but uninspired man who rescues a crane in his backyard under the most unlikely of circumstances. This act of kindness sets into motion a chain of events in which an enigmatic woman, Kumiko, changes his life. Together they embark on a project creating unusual art works, and fall in love.
The Crane Wife is more than a romance, though. It’s about the redemptive power of the imagination, about creativity as the nurturer of the soul. It’s about how when we allow the extraordinary into our lives, we can expect to be met with people and experiences beyond our wildest reckoning.
The central characters, George and Kumiko are charming and otherworldly; they are people who function in reality despite themselves. But it is the supporting cast of Mehmet, who works in George’s shop, and George’s daughter Amanda, who give contrast to the strangeness by being more of this world than any of us would dare to be. They say what they think – Amanda swears and is too coarse for her ‘friends’. Mehmet is the shop assistant from hell, saying everything that comes to mind, irrespective of how rude, politically incorrect or inappropriate it might be. It is impossible not to love Mehmet and Amanda. These characters keep us in the day-to-day of the real world while George and Kumiko embark on a most fantastical romance.
Ness is a stunning writer. Critics have accused him of writing prose that is overcooked, flamboyant. Well, that’s just literary critics applying a certain literary fashion to their assessment. The language is perfect for the tale. After all, this is a story based on an ancient Japanese folktale and it is about magic and romance. Should Ness have written it as though he was Ernest Hemingway? Of course not, that would be absurd.
The Crane Wife is a delight. Who would I recommend it to? Anyone who is bored with reality. Anyone who likes to find joy, innocence and beauty in life.
Here is Patrick Ness talking about The Crane Wife on The Book Club.