Saturday, February 1, 2014

Book: The Crane Wife

(Image from the C/W Mars Catalog)
The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness is an unusual take on a Japanese folktale.  The most unusual part of it is how little resemblance it bears to the “original” story, but still manages to be a clear reinterpretation of it.  To a certain degree, that is of course to be expected, since it is not like folktales usually give enough information to fill a whole novel.  In this case, as with most variations of the story, the most important aspect is the fact that the man, in Ness’s version, George, cannot see the crane, Kumiko, as she creates her art, because then she will be forced to leave.  But everything else about the story has no connection whatsoever to the folktale, e.g. it is set in modern day London, rather than Japan, and the art that Kumiko creates from her feathers is not fabric of any kind, but figures on tiles that are not complete without contributions from George.

Of course, the novelization of any folktale or fairytale usually gives it more depth, because it gives the story more space to explore its message, but Ness’s interpretation really gives the traditional tale a whole new dimension and message, by adding that one little twist to the story: the crane’s work is not complete without contributions from the husband.  In all of the folktale versions of “The Crane Wife” that I have read, the woman weaves an almost magical fabric from her feathers, which she presents to her husband upon completion, to be sold in order to make money for the household.  In those stories, the fabric is a gift from the crane that is created explicitly for the benefit of the man.  In Ness’s version, Kumiko’s artwork is something that she originally started creating just for herself, to be able to tell her personal story.  She had initially intended to sell some of her tiles to help support herself, but her primary body of work, the thirty-two tiles of her story, were not really meant to be seen by anyone, let alone sold for profit.  However, as soon as she saw George’s paper cuttings and began adding them to her tiles, Kumiko’s artwork took on a whole new life and purpose that could not have been achieved without George’s contributions.  In this manner, their artwork becomes an analogy for relationships in general, in that each person is special on their own, but it is only in the juxtaposition and combination of two lives working together as one that something truly magnificent and meaningful can be created.   Whereas the traditional folktale can be seen as being about the trust that needs to exist between husband and wife, with the husband keeping his word about not looking on his wife as she works, Ness’s novel takes the story beyond that basic level of trust necessary in any such romantic relationship.  He expands it to finding an appreciation for the beauty that can only be achieved when two people live and work together in loving, trusting, harmony. 

     **SPOILER ALERT: reading farther may spoil the book**

The other really interesting and unusual thing about Ness’s approach to the novelization of this folktale, is the way that he chose to write it in terms of setting and tone.  He did not give it an ancient, magical setting, nor did he quite fully give it a gritty, realistic, modern setting.  In the beginning I thought he was going for a timeless, indistinct setting, but once it became clear that it was modern London, I thought he was going to take the “magic realism” approach, where it would never become clear if Kumiko was actually the crane and Rachel was the spirit of the volcano.  For much of the book, I liked his unclear approach to the events, with the imagery being so vivid but no real explanations given as to whether what George experienced with the crane in his backyard and what he saw in Kumiko’s apartment were real or not.  But I was surprised when at the climax of the story, it all became painfully clear that yes, these were magical beings that George had encountered, who had been playing out their cosmic story on the grandest scale of time.  It was a little disappointing to me, because I am rereading The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey with one of my book clubs, and I have been thinking a lot about how much I love the use of magic realism as a way of reinterpreting folktales and fairytales.  I think that magic realism as a genre is the best way to breathe new life into traditional stories that have somewhat lost their meaning over time, so I was a little upset when Ness chose not to stay on that path, when so much of the story seemed to be heading in that direction. 

Overall, The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness is a complex reimagining of a traditional Japanese folktale.  I have not actually even begun to touch upon some of the truly imaginative ways that Ness was able to expand upon whatever version of “The Crane Wife” that he grew up with.  But if you take his expanded story and reduce it again to its simplest folktale form, I am truly impressed by the new meaning that Ness was able to bring to the story by changing one small detail about the work of art that he put at the center of the story.  And even if I do not agree with all of the choices that Ness made as a writer in presenting his story, it is certainly a book that anyone who enjoys folktales or fairytales should read.


Ness, P. (2013). The Crane Wife. New York; Penguin Press.

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