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patricknessAn ancient folk tale reworked in modern London provides a meditation on memory and the creative spirit.

A story never ends at the end. There is always after … No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flows. The net catches some of the truth but all, never all …

Patrick Ness first heard the Japanese folk tale about the crane wife from his kindergarten teacher when he was five years old and the story never left him. He has reworked its core elements into his own version, transplanting the story to a modern London setting where the lyrical and the mythic collide and combine with the grit of daily life.

As with most folk tales, there are variations, but the basis of this one is that a sailmaker removes an arrow from a wounded crane and then meets a beautiful woman; the two fall in love and are married. The woman forbids the man to watch her work at making a sail; all is well for a while but eventually he spies on her and sees her plucking feathers from her own breast and sewing them into the fabric of the sail. After realising he has seen her, she flies away, never to return:

What actually woke him was the unearthly sound itself – a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt …

In Ness’s reworked version, the reader is lifted up with a lyrical opening which immediately crashes back down to earth and reality – 48-year-old George is awoken in the night by a strange sound and has to pee; we are not spared the specifically male intricacies of this procedure. He hears the sound again: ‘It had sounded like a keen.’ There is the first of many keens to be heard throughout the book. Not unexpectedly, George finds an injured crane in his garden …

The following day, an unassuming, intriguing woman called Kumiko appears at George’s print shop where he works with his assistant Mehmet. Kumiko has with her a series of strikingly beautiful ‘pictures’ she has made:

She was smaller than average without actually being small, long dark hair cascading down to her shoulders, pale brown eyes watching him, unblinkingly. He couldn’t put a finger on her nationality just then if you’d asked him … Her age was as difficult to fix as her origins.

George doesn’t see himself as an ‘artist’ but as ‘a half decent drawer of things’ and he enjoys making cuttings from discarded books – an activity which he finds slightly subversive, almost a form of artistically sanctioned vandalism. Others see him as ‘a pleasant enough man, but lacking that certain something, that extra little ingredient to be truly worth investing in’. He hasn’t had much success with relationships:

It was a mistake women often seemed to make. He had more female friends, including his ex-wife, than any straight man he knew. The trouble was they’d all started out as lovers, before realising that he was too amiable to take quite seriously. ‘You’re about sixty-five per cent,’ his ex-wife had said, as she left him. ‘And I think seventy is probably my minimum.’ The trouble was, seventy per cent seemed to be every woman’s minimum.

He is close to his daughter Amanda; she has a circle of friends but is a bit of an outsider. She adores her four-year-old son PJ and misses her ex-husband Henri, who is now back in France after their marriage break-up.

George and Kumiko are immediately drawn to one another and begin making exquisite art objects together – art which people crave and want to own – but who is she? Why are people attracted to her and what is her story?

There were as many truths – overlapping, stewed together – as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story’s life. A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.

The Crane Wife is very much a book about the nature of memory, narrative and story. It is also an exploration of the creative spirit and the many shades of light and darkness inhabiting human love and desire. As Kumiko explains to George, the mythic can encroach on the real because ‘The extraordinary happens all the time’.

While I enjoyed the novel’s many layers of story and confess to shedding a few tears at the end, I found myself pulling back from some intense moments of drama, which seemed either over-written or over-explained. For me, the main power of myth, fairytale or folk tale, is its gift to its recipients that they must turn inwards in order to construct their own meaningful interpretation.

Patrick Ness The Crane Wife, Canongate, 2013, PB, 320pp, $27.99

@PaulaGrunseit is a freelance reviewer, journalist, editor and intermittent librarian. She is a contributing editor for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013 and blogs at Wordsville.

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