Literary Wives: The Crane Wife

The June pick for the Literary Wives series is The Crane Wife (2013) by Patrick Ness.  We are asking the following questions of all of the “wife” books we read.

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

The following bloggers are participating by posting their own reactions to this book.  Please visit their blogs and feel free to join the conversation.

Ariel of One Little Library

Carolyn O. of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Cecilia of Only You

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Kay of What Me Read

The Crane Wife is based on a Japanese folk tale, but Ness brings it into modern times by setting it in England with a guy named George, his grown daughter Amanda, and a mysterious girlfriend named Kumiko.  George awakens one night to find a crane shot by an arrow in his yard.  He goes out and helps it, and then it flies away.  Later, Kumiko appears in his shop, and they start dating.  She seems to be the perfect woman.  After some ups and downs, and a dramatic fire at the end in which Kumiko turns into a crane and saves both George and Amanda from the burning house, she disappears, and George realizes that she was the crane he had saved earlier.


I’m not sure what this novel says about being a wife.  Kumiko tends to be perfect; she’s always calm, she understands George more than anybody else, and she’s able to save.  She has no flaws.  But she isn’t really a wife.  She’s a magical bird who dates George and leaves before they actually marry.  In my opinion, this book doesn’t say much about being a wife at all.

It does try to comment on love and betrayal.  When George cheats on Kumiko, his lover Rachel tells him, “And by being possessed, you possess, because that’s how love works. . . . I thought I possessed you like all those other idiots I slept with.  Possession while giving nothing in return” (p. 214).  She reveals her philosophy on love, that it is a way for her to posses men, but she tells George that he possessed her too. (I have no idea why, because George is boring.)  She is upset that he had power over her, but Kumiko has power over George.  The novel, with its strange love triangle, explores the power people can wield in romantic relationships and ignores the possibility of equanimity and goodwill flowing both ways. I was intrigued by this discussion of possession in relation to love because of A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession, which I recently reviewed here.  This possession that Rachel feels leads to jealousy over George’s relationship with Kumiko and she is responsibile for the fire at George’s house in the end.  Rachel is very obviously described as having “green eyes” before she lights the first match.

It is a strange book, and not just for the narrative, based on a Japanese folktale.  It is also strange because of the writing style. It is written in mostly dialogue, which I found annoying and unrealistic, and it is disjointed.  Ness often used ellipses as dialogue.  I didn’t care enough about the characters or the narrative to try to fill in those blanks myself.  I was not compelled by George at all, who seems to be an older autobiographical version of Ness.  George is a transplanted American in England; so is Ness.  Amanda’s character is equally unconvincing; she swears a lot and hangs out with stupid friends, although she has a young son that seems to connect her to her father.  Nevertheless, I disliked her.  And when George slept with her friend Rachel, after his engagement to Kumiko, I had no sympathy for him.  He came across as a stupid man with no morals, no loyalty, and no appeal.  I could not understand why either Kumiko or Rachel liked him.  I guess since he rescued Kumiko from the arrow when she was a bird is a reason, but we aren’t supposed to know that she’s the crane until the end of the novel.  It was pretty obvious throughout, however.

There were some good quotes, but they were often ruined by a cynical character claiming that the sentiment was just something people say to make themselves feel better.  The characters often made everything trite, even when the conversations were trying to be deep or thoughtful.  Here are a few of them.

“No one wanted to hear that people other than themselves might be complicated, that no one was ever just one thing, no history ever just one version” (p. 27).

“Smart people often feel left out, love” (p. 86).

“‘This I will never understand,’ Kumiko carried on over her. ‘The inability of people to see themselves clearly. To see what they are actually like, not what they fear they are like or what they wish to be like, but what they actually are.  Why is what you are never enough for you?’” (emphasis in original, p. 180).

Overall, I pretty much hated this novel, and I ended up skimming or reading disinterestedly for most of it. So if I missed something important or misrepresented part of the plot, that may be why.  I had a hard time getting into it with each reading, and I had to force myself to finish it for Literary Wives.  You might find more favorable reviews from the other bloggers.