Patrick Ness is an author I stumbled upon after reading his breathtaking A Monster Calls, which is middle grade fiction. Then I ventured to the fascinating More Than This, which is high level young adult. Of course then I wanted to venture into his adult writing, and I began with The Crane Wife. I often tell my students when they are about to embark on an “author study” to see if they can notice rhythms in the prose or a pattern to the kinds of things that are explored in the writing. For Ness, from what I can tell, he seems to come back to the metaphor of story and truth–a concept that many would find to be contradictory.
The Crane Wife is based on a Japanese folk tale and, in Ness style, cannot be defined by one clear genre: there are moments that feel like magical realism, or might be defined as other-worldly, or spiritual. The beauty in his writing is that these forces all come together in a way that suggests that of course this is true. This sense of magic or deep tragedy that steps outside our usual human experience matches up with our day to day more closely than actual realism. As Ness overlaps his adaptation of the folktale, which is narrated intermittently throughout the story, with the main characters and conflict of the novel, with other text inspirations for the story like the Decemberists’ album The Crane Wife, the reader can see how Ness sees the world as a place of overlapping themes that gently nudge against each other in a variety of genres.
The novels follows a lonely, divorced man, George, his assistant in the small printshop he owns, and the man’s daughter and grandson. George wakes one night to a strange noise and finds an injured crane in his backyard, which he brings back to health. The next day, a woman walks into his printshop, wanting help with her pieces of art and George falls in love. The mysterious woman begins to add George’s small pieces of art with her own, and they soon find themselves creating highly sought-after pieces in the art world.
While I read, I found myself underlining all of the references to story and truth and found myself fascinated as I sat down to read them through when I finished the novel. After reading them I realized how post modern it all felt: that Ness’s philosophy about story encompass not one truth to share, but many:
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 (42).
The world has always been hungry, though it often does not know what it hungers for (139).
A story must be told. How else can we live in this world that makes no sense? …Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end. There is always after (141-142).
Stories shift depending on who is doing the telling (269).
And yet, by the time I came to the end of the book, there was also a thread about forgiveness–and I began to consider how this fit into the role of story. And, fittingly for my own worldview and background this weekend, how it fit into the Easter story. It seems in my mind, that no matter who the narrator of the story is, or the kinds of interpretative shifts we make, the concept of forgiveness seems to overlap them all. The mysterious woman says this in various ways throughout the book, and I think it is worth thinking about for a while:
Everyone needs forgiveness. It is the most loving thing one person can do for another…It is what makes life possible. It is what makes life livable (269-270).