A Wing & a Prayer
The Crane Wife
By Patrick Ness (Canongate 320pp £14.99)
Patrick Ness won a mantelpieceful of awards for his last book, A Monster Calls (2011), about a 13-year-old boy with a dying mother who learns how to relieve his suppressed anxieties by talking about them. The figure who coaxes his secrets from him is, as the title suggests, an obliging monster who pays him midnight visits. The human compulsion to keep a part of oneself secret is a theme that Ness explores repeatedly in his work. It is at the heart of Chaos Walking, his remarkable dystopian trilogy in which human refugees (from Earth, we presume) find themselves on a planet on which it is possible to hear each other's thoughts, and those who wish to keep their inner selves hidden learn to sublimate and control their thought processes.
It is central, too, to Ness's new book, The Crane Wife. This is his first novel in a decade for adults, although, as few readers of any age could fail to be thrilled by his young-adult fiction, it might be better to describe it as his first novel in a decade not for teenagers (teen readers will find much to beguile them, but may be underwhelmed by jokes about such mundane grown-up preoccupations as office politics and art snobbery).
A description of the book might sound as though it's been lifted from the blurb of a forthcoming Anne Tyler. The hero is George Duncan, a 48-year-old American who owns a small printing shop in London, is long divorced and unable to attract women because they all find him 'too nice', has weird hobbies, and is about to have his ordered existence upended by an oddball woman. The novel is distinctly un-Tylerish, though, in its moments of magical realism. The story starts, like A Monster Calls, with a mysterious creature turning up in the dead of night and offering salvation. George is woken by an unearthly cry - a 'keen' is the word that springs to his mind - and finds a crane in his garden, its wing pierced by an arrow. He wrenches the arrow free, it flies off, and the next day he falls instantly in love with Kumiko, a customer who arrives in his shop bearing a suitcase full of beautiful artworks made from feathers.
Connoisseurs of folktales will recognise the plot of the traditional Japanese story of the crane wife, in which a man finds love after saving the life of a bird; they will know, too, that the story ends with the man betraying his wife's trust by spying on her. In Ness's version Kumiko promises George the whole of her love but insists on being allowed to keep her secrets; George's desire to know everything about her precipitates disaster.
Although Patrick Ness anchors his story firmly in the real world with sharp observational gags - on everything from cyclists ('they all looked identical, with their crotch-fitting tights and their air of ethical entitlement') to John Updike ('the paragraphs with their astonishing numbers of semi-colons and not especially much happening') - the book is really a fable, albeit one with a moral that is hard to pinpoint. Do secrets harm a relationship or are they essential to its survival? Is it possible - or even desirable - to know your partner fully? There are no glib answers.
It is rare to read a fictional reworking of a myth that doesn't simplify its source, that can do what myths do and convey a truth that the reader responds to but cannot necessarily define. The Crane Wife succeeds in this, which is why it is truly a book for grown-ups.
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Jake Kerridge is a writer and a journalist.