Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Wednesday, November 13, 2013: Maximum Shelf: The Crane Wife

Penguin Press: The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

Penguin Press: The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

Penguin Press: The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

Penguin Press: The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

The Crane Wife

by Patrick Ness

Affability has long been George Duncan's undoing. At 48, the hero of Patrick Ness's quiet miracle of a novel has learned to lower his expectations. Yes, his solitude is punctuated by undemanding days at his print shop, whose endeavors tend toward T-shirts and posters, and visits from his fiery daughter, Amanda, and four-year-old grandson. But George knows that he needs something more. And he needs to offer something more to the world. The constructions he's taken to making from damaged books, however, don't seem to do much for Amanda or his cut-up of an assistant, Mehmet. As for love, women--including those who'd "started out as lovers"--can't see him as more than a friend.

This, though, is the daytime George. When we first come upon him, it is the dead of night. Awakened by an uncanny, desperate cry, he finds a giant white crane in his garden. The odds of such a visitation in suburban London: nonexistent. But when George accepts that he's not dreaming, he realizes that the bird is dreadfully injured, one wing shot through with an arrow that could easily take down a man, let alone this magnificent creature now close to death.

"The crane's full weight suddenly pressed against the man's chest. The long neck fell forward like a ballerina's arm accepting applause, and it wrapped around him, its head hanging down his back, as if embracing him. Only the heaving of its narrow breast told the man that the bird was still alive, that in its exhaustion it had given itself into his keeping...."

As in the Japanese folktale that inspired Ness's novel, to reveal that the man at last manages to remove the weapon is not a spoiler. This is the beginning, not the end of George's odyssey--and the crane's. Though you know he will manage to save her and she will reappear in human guise, even on repeated readings you will be transported by George's struggle, which extends over several exquisitely painful pages, and by the rapprochement of man and creature.

By this point, the reader is as gloriously wired as George, for the first chapter of The Crane Wife is every bit as urgent as the celebrated hot-air-balloon sequence that opens Ian McEwan's Enduring Love. Few writers could maintain this pitch of lyricism, and perhaps even fewer readers would want them to. Just as in Shakespeare, where a character's shift from poetic verse to prose--and vice versa--is significant, so it is in The Crane Wife. Happily, Ness is a master of far more than heightened moments and freighted silences. He has a playwright's flair for witty repartee and the gift of letting us inside his characters' heads and hearts, where we follow them with sympathy and clarity. He knows, too, how agonizing an ex's kindness can be. When Amanda's French husband left her, she recalls, "He took her arm with a gentleness that told her it was over more brutally than any fight ever could have."

As Amanda grows increasingly discontented, longing for Henri and capable only of alienating those around her, her father is on the opposite track--not only happy but fulfilled. For the morning after he saved that "impossible bird," another rare being enters his world: an artist who wants facsimiles made of her artworks.  

Kumiko's mystical pieces wrought from "an impossible array of feathers" are exquisite, but she is conscious that "they lack life." Magically, thanks to a cutting he has just made, George can provide what is missing. "The dragon now had purpose. The crane now had context. The dragon now had a dangerous curiosity, it had potential. The crane now had threat, a serenity about to cease. Together, they had tension. Together, they were more than two incomplete halves, they were a third thing, mysterious and powerful and bigger than the small black square that imprisoned them.... The dragon and the crane invited you to step in, take part, be either or both, but they were very clear that you would do so at your peril."

More astonishingly, soon George and this very private woman are in love. Or at least he is. Kumiko is elusive, and prone to gnomic responses. She warns George, for instance, "If there is never a chance of hardness or pain, then softness has no meaning."

Kumiko and George's works--which rightly make them art-world darlings--are composed of layer upon layer and of crucial oppositions. So is The Crane Wife. George may be the book's loyal but flawed hero, but his daughter also captivates, and Kumiko will entrance you as much as she does both of them. "She had given him the whole world," George justifies himself. "Just not enough of herself in it." A very modern fable about making sense of the world and the stories we tell ourselves, Ness's artful exploration of generosity and greed, creation and destruction, dreams and practical magic will leave you transported by what W.B. Yeats called tragic joy. --Kerry Fried

Penguin Press, $26.95, hardcover, 9781594205477, January 23, 2014

Penguin Press: The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness: Write with Joy

photo: Debbie Smyth

Patrick Ness is the author of the award-winning Chaos Walking trilogy (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, Monsters of Men) and the Costa Children's Book Award winner A Monster Calls for young adults, plus a novel for adults called The Crash of Hennington and a story collection for adults, Topics About Which I Know Nothing. Ness grew up in Hawaii and Washington State and now lives in London. His new book for adults is The Crane Wife.

In your acknowledgments, you write that you've known the myth of the crane wife since you were five. Still, your understanding of it must have significantly morphed and altered over the years.

I'd always known about the crane wife and felt like there was something there, but I would say that the way that you can tell that something has legs for a novel is that other ideas start sticking to it. So my advice is that if you get a good idea: wait. Also, the crane wife is one of the rare folktales that begins with an act of kindness. Most begin with an act of cruelty: a princess gets chucked up a tower or put to sleep, for instance. But this one starts with a man being kind to an animal--an injured crane. A different sort of flavor.

You've veered from the folktale, though, which is concerned with material greed.

The story of the crane wife ends tragically, it's a tale of greed, but as I got older, I noticed more and more the kindness, and I thought, What would a kind man be greedy for? Well, he'd be greedy for that thing we're all greedy for when we fall in love with someone, which is reassurance and confirmation and knowledge. Because falling in love with someone is so terrifying that we grasp at the least little bit of information that we're loved back. 

That leads to a tantalizing push/pull for the reader, who sympathizes with George's wanting to know more about Kumiko--and also, of course, would love to know everything about her--but fears that his need will end in disaster. "She had given him the whole world," George laments. "Just not enough of herself in it."

Kumiko purposely keeps herself mysterious, and you can read that for realistic reasons. Or, if you want to read it magically, she's keeping things secret because she has the big secret. But it can be read both ways, and I thought, That's what would drive a kind man to act badly: not knowing.

This is your first book that's officially for adults in almost a decade, though many grown-ups have co-opted your YA novels.

The intended audience might be different, but it's the same amount of me going into it. When I started writing the Chaos Walking trilogy, I didn't sit down and say, I'm going to write a teen book. I was working on a story and circling it and trying to figure out the voice. And when the voice revealed itself, I thought, "Oh, it's probably for teenagers." So I just shrugged my shoulders and said, "Great." I was very, very surprised, pleasantly so, by the success of the teen books. The trilogy took three long years of my life, and then there was A Monster Calls. The Crane Wife was just ripe and needed to be told then or not at all.

The novel moves naturally between a beautiful, visceral lyricism--the heart-stopping first chapter, for instance--and a more conversation-filled prose that dips in and out of various characters' viewpoints. Then there is the elemental mode in which you recount the story of Kumiko's tiles.

It just felt like this should have a kind of quilted approach to it by putting different pieces next to one another, much the same way that George and Kumiko assemble their art: by putting different kinds of pieces next to each other in the hope that they'll make something bigger than the pieces themselves. I really believe in authors challenging themselves, and it was a big challenge to make sure that they all cohered.

Tell us about the miracle of George and Kumiko's collaboration.

The thing about George and Kumiko's art is that I wanted it to also be a metaphor for falling in love. You're a part, and they're a part, and the two of you together make up a larger-than-the-sum-of-your-parts thing.

Each of their works seems to drive those who see it into a frenzy of need, as if they can only be complete once they possess it.

The response that people have in the book to the tiles, that's the response to some modern art that I get surprised by. I know modern art gets a lot of overdone press, but some artists, like Rachel Whiteread or Antony Gormley, I see their work, and I don't know why I'm overcome, but I am. That's what I was after.

You and your hero George share a certain amount of background. You were born in the U.S. and have long lived in the U.K. Do you have other things in common?

He's older than I am by several years! Of course it would be disingenuous to say that my experiences as an expat don't filter in, because they certainly do. But there are two things. The story that George tells of being run down by a car--that actually happened to me. And that was one of the other big ingredients of the book: Who has ownership of a story, and where is the truth in a story told by several people? I'd always wondered what those people who saw me get hit said. Did they tell the story? What did they say? I'll never, ever know.

The second thing is that I'm in every character. There's a lot of Amanda in me, and there's a lot of me in Amanda, and there's a lot of me in Mehmet. There are a few autobiographical bits in everyone, I think. I never quite get it when authors say, "This book is a really personal book for me." Shouldn't they all be really personal?

Your note to readers in A Monster Calls concludes: "Stories don't end with the writers.... So go. Run with it. Make trouble." What did you mean?

By the time I'm done with a book, I've read it dozens and dozens of times, and I have my relationship with it. I feel like I know what works, and I know what I'd like to do better next time. But my bit is finished. When someone reads it, there's absolutely nothing that I can control or even predict. The combination of my book and your perspective, your experience, your life, will take it further, and in completely different ways. I'm a storyteller, and I have to have somebody who will let me tell those stories--and what a huge, huge privilege that is.

In August, the Guardian asked you to talk about your favorite word. "Joy" won out that time. Does it still, and can you talk about a couple of favorites it beat out?

It's so easy to be cynical about joy, but joy implies fearlessness as well. My advice about writing is always, Write with joy. People might not be able to tell that that's the thing they're responding to, but I believe that if you write with joy every day, that rubs off. It's an intangible thing, but if you do something joyously, it's going to attract other people like mad. Other words? My second choice was probably something like "Sasquatch," just because I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Before Jurassic Park, before digital dinosaurs took over, my nightmare monster was always Bigfoot, so probably Sasquatch.

You talk about joy, but many of your characters find themselves exceptionally isolated, and one of great strengths of your work is that it never shies away from sorrow, let alone disaster.

I think all my characters do end up finding joy in other people. There is no one grand cosmic answer to your life and happiness. The best you're going to get is someone you can trust, someone you can rely on, someone who knows and understands you. And isn't that just the most wonderful thing in the world? --Kerry Fried

Powered by: Xtenit