Patrick Ness was first told the story of The Crane Wife by his teacher when he was in kindergarten in Hawaii. A Japanese folk tale with many variations, the one he fell in love with tells the tale of a sailma-ker who finds a crane injured by an arrow in its wing. He helps the bird to recover and it flies away. The very next day a woman enters his life, he falls in love and they grow rich from the beautiful sails she weaves. Her only condition is that he doesn’t watch her weaving – but he grows greedy. He forces her to work faster. And, finally, he bursts open the door – to see that she has been the crane all along, weaving the sails from her feathers. The spell is broken and she flies away.
“I’ve always been fascinated by The Crane Wife because most folk tales start with acts of cruelty,” says Ness, whose version of the story is published this month. “Someone imprisoned in a tower or abandoned in the woods. But this begins with an act of kindness. He saves the bird. And there’s something about that I like – he’s not a bad person, he becomes greedy and greed changes him. He ends up ruining the thing he loves because of it. So I liked that, it felt more recognisably human to me.”
Ness, who was born and grew up in the US but now lives in London, is best known for his multi-award-winning dystopian teenage fiction – the Chaos Walking trilogy. The trilogy is currently being adapted for film by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. “Which is, y’know, really cool,” he chuckles.
But while The Crane Wife was told to him as a child, it never occurred to him that his take on the tale would be for the younger audience who flock to his books. “Really, my book is about adult loneliness,” he says.
And it is, but beautifully so. George, firmly in middle age, finds the crane in his back garden one night. As in the myth, he helps it recover and the next day a strangely alluring woman by the name of Kumiko walks into his print shop, changing the direction of his life and that of anyone she comes across, including George’s angry (but often amusing) daughter Amanda – the beating emotional heart of the novel.
The recognisably 21st-century elements of the story – the comedy and tragedy of failed relationships, infant children and office life – are given metaphorical ballast by the mysterious, magical Kumiko, who refuses to tell George her history.
“The thing is, I never think in terms of what’s magical and what isn’t,” says Ness. “I really don’t. You must be open to whatever you think the story needs. After all, even putatively ‘realistic’ novels are completely made up – there are contrivances and coincidences in the same way in which there would be in a wholly ‘magical’ novel.”
One of the book’s best characteristics is that it asks the reader to be open, too. In a key section of The Crane Wife, there are five different versions of a seismic, life-changing event – the point being that the “truth” can always be interpreted in a multitude of different ways.
“I’m pretty sure I know which of the five happened, but it doesn’t matter if somebody else sees it differently,” he says. “Another starting point for the book – and it happens to George – was an event in my childhood in which I was hit by a car. It was right by a gas station and a supermarket, lots of people were watching it, and I’ve always wondered about all those people who for a minute thought they were watching something terrible. How did they tell that story? How did it differ from how I told it?”
Such questions pepper Ness’s book without detracting from its narrative or emotional core. Like the original, it’s a tale of human weakness, but without malice. George is a kind, decent man who is only, in the end, desperate for the security of knowing someone loves him.
“He just goes a little too far in his desire for that security,” says Ness. “And I think that is recognisable. Falling in love is terrifying. Exhilarating, of course, but it leaves you completely open. Wanting to know a person, or having insecurities about how they feel, is really human. Most of the people I know are pretty decent – and interesting – because of the mistakes and choices they make.”
The Crane Wife (Canongate) is out tomorrow
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