A word of advice. It’s probably not a good idea to choose your reading material based solely on the fact that the epigraph is taken from a song by a band you like. I know that The Crane Wife is actually based on a Japanese folk tale, but it was solely because of the reference to the Decemberists that I wanted to read the book. I’d made the assumption that because the author liked the same sort of music as me, he would also write fiction that I liked. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with The Crane Wife
I can’t place exactly why I didn’t like the book. It was well-written, in a pedantic and detached sort of way, and while I think that is supposed to be giving us an insight into the mind-set of George, the protagonist, it stops the book from ever really becoming absorbing. So perhaps it is the characterisation that is the issue, rather than the story?
We are told that George is nice to a fault, incapable of a selfish action and emphatically the sort of man that woman want as friends, not as lovers. This doesn’t really come across in the text, instead he features more as a lonely and mildly bewildered middle-aged man; most of his back story that we do see doesn’t seem to contribute towards the perception that Ness wants us to have. A story about being hit by a car as a teenager seems to have little relevance to the plot and while I’m not a follower of the ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ school of story-telling, it did feel superfluous. Similarly the recurring amazement characters feel when they discover that George is actually American. It doesn’t add anything to anyone’s characters and doesn’t further the plot in any way, so I just can’t see what the point of it was.
The sections that are from the perspective of George’s daughter Amanda are even less engaging, and frankly I’m not sure what the point of her character arc is. She’s introduced as being misanthropic and almost incapable of forming positive relationships with people who aren’t blood relatives, and though she does develop over the course of the story, her storyline lacks any real resolution. She gets a promotion at her work and may have found a kindred spirit, but apart from that, there’s nothing. As far as I can tell, Amanda’s only real purpose is as a foil to Kumiko and to indirectly facilitate the climax of the story by bringing one of George ex-girlfriends (who is also one of her colleagues) back into his life.
The whole point of the Crane Wife narrative, the original myth that is, is that the woman who enters the man’s life is enigmatic and distant, so you can’t really fault Ness for portraying Kumiko as such, but it gets old after a while. I at least, lost interest fairly quickly and my suspension of disbelief could only stretch so far for her. It’s the same problem I had with The Bad Girl actually. The narrator is hopelessly in love with this mysterious woman, and most of the people who meet her are similarly entranced by her, but the author fails to convey this convincingly.
Finally, the problem may be that I was approaching it from the wrong perspective. My only awareness of Ness prior to this book was that I had seen The Knife of Never Letting Go in various bookshop Young Adult sections. I had thus gone into The Crane Wife expecting to read a Young Adult novel, which in hindsight I don’t think is necessarily an appropriate classification. Now, many people would probably criticise me for the concept that that there is a fundamental difference in the way we read YA fiction, and maybe this is part of my ongoing issues with the genre, but I do feel that, if I had been expecting the slightly more mature and sophisticated themes, I wouldn’t have found them so repellent. The benefits of keeping and open mind when it comes to literature.
There were aspects of the book that I liked. George’s gay Turkish actor employee, Mehmet was the source of a great deal of the book’s comic relief, and showed that Ness is able to write characters that are likeable. Similarly, Amanda’s son, Jean-Pierre (more commonly known as JP) and his relationship with George does provide some grounding for the protagonist. It makes sense for him to love his grandson unconditionally and their conversations and interactions are quite sweet. Unfortunately, JP comes part and parcel with his father, Henri, who after breaking up with Amanda prior to JP’s birth, returned to France. Henri himself is a perfectly reasonable character, but his relationship with Amanda provides a layer of complication to her plot that again, added nothing to the book.
All in all, I just couldn’t like The Crane Wife. Based on the amount of praise I’ve seen it receive, I’m getting the feeling that I may have missed something. However, no matter how well written a book is, if I’m as put off by the characters as much as I did these, then I’m never going to like the book.