One night, George Duncan - a decent man, a good man - is woken by a noise in his garden. Impossibly, a great white crane has tumbled to earth, shot through its wing by an arrow. Unexpectedly moved, George helps the bird, and from the moment he watches it fly off, his life is transformed.The next day, a kind but enigmatic woman walks into George's shop. Suddenly an extraordinary new world opens up for George, but no love ever comes without risk. Wise, romantic, magical and funny, The Crane Wife is a hymn to the creative imagination and a celebration of the disruptive and redemptive power of love. Jamie Glover is an accomplished actor and audiobook narrator. His extensive television credits include Waterloo Road and Trial and Retribution. Recent leading theatre roles include Noises Off at the Old Vic/ Adelphi West End and The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse.
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A beautiful, white crane falls, keening, to earth, with an arrow piercing its wing. A man wrestles the arrow from the bird in the freezing cold and the crane flies free. It’s a powerful, dream-like moment, but it takes place in suburban London to a bloke called George Duncan whose ex-wife describes him as 65% man.
The following day, George, who runs a print shop, meets an other-worldly woman called Kumiko, who brings in a stunning collage she’s made from feathers. George, who has been idly cutting a picture out of the pages of a second-hand book, discovers that his creation completes Kumiko’s. It is the start of a gentle relationship and a marriage of two art forms: feathers and words, which Kumiko turns into pictures that both become worth a small fortune in the art world, and which tell a story, perhaps her story.
The story within the story is of a crane who falls in love with a volcano. In spite of loving her too, the volcano tries to destroy her but cannot. The pair are bound together for eternity as the volcano’s thwarted love and anger maims their child, the earth, and the crane forgives him over and over.
I first came across The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness at a Book Slam event in the Birdcage Bar in Bristol. Patrick read two excerpts from his book – the opening where George saves the crane, and a scene in which George, as an 8 year old, is run over. The former was beautiful and the latter so powerful I thought I was going to be sick. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the book does not reach these levels of power or beauty. (Incidentally, Patrick said that the car accident happened to him, which may account for it’s unique feeling of heightened reality).
George and his daughter, Amanda, are wonderfully realistic characters, but Amanda is supremely irritating, as are most of the other minor characters. Kumiko is so enigmatic her entire personality whispers between your fingers. She is part stereotypical Eastern muse. It is also hard to believe in the seductive nature of the art she and George produce.
Some sections of the writing are indeed sublime – the penultimate scene, a paragraph or two where Kumiko gives Amanda some rice pudding to try – but much is mundane, as is the content. I really, really do not want to know how George and Amanda pee. There is an unsettling balance between the – slightly indulgent – scenes with the crane and the volcano, and the reality of urban London, where George buys a new printer for his shop and worries about orders of T-shirts for stag weekends.
George is a lovely, nice guy, and, as a reader, you don’t want anything bad to happen to him. Although the supernatural feel of the crane and her powerful lover shimmer violently throughout the novel, there is no real tension or threat of anything truly dreadful happening to George.
What The Crane Wife is about, is stories: the telling of stories, the story of George, the Japanese myth of the crane wife, how stories are perceived by different people, how they change in the telling, that they never really end. It is about love and forgiveness. However, the forgiveness that the crane deals in, is of an unsettling kind that involves piercing the heart and stabbing the eyes of anyone who requires ‘forgiveness’ for their unspeakable crimes. And, as for love and story telling, it seems to me that the author would like the book to say more and to be deeper and more meaningful than it really is.
I listened to this as an audiobook, which worked well, given the dual voices of George and Amanda, and the large chunks of pure dialogue. Both Patrick Ness in The Birdcage Bar, and Jamie Duncan, the professional narrator, read beautifully.