This week I’d like to recommend  `The Crane Wife’  by Patrick Ness, a book that Fantasy readers may have missed because it was promoted as a literary novel. In Britain, `The Crane Wife’  is available in paperback, ebook or audio forms. I’m afraid that there isn’t an American printed edition until 2014, but you can already get it on Kindle or as an audio download. Ness is an American writer who now lives in London. He’s written a powerful SF series for Young Adults (`Chaos Walking’) but his adult novels are harder to fit into any known genre. One British newspaper described Ness’s work as `heart-warmingly deranged’  and that pretty much sums up why I enjoy reading it.

The unlikely hero of `The Crane Wife’  is George Duncan, a middle-aged American who has ended up living in outer London. He runs a not very successful print-shop and no-one takes much notice of his hobby of making pictures out of pieces of text cut from books. George is decent and kind but he’s the sort of man who gets patronised or pushed around by everyone he knows – including his English ex-wife and her wealthy new husband, his troubled daughter, Amanda, and his Turkish assistant, Mehmet. One night, George is woken by a keening sound and is astonished to find a wounded Oriental crane in his small back garden. He warms the frightened bird with his own coat and manages to remove an  arrow from its wing. Then the heart-breakingly beautiful bird flies away, leaving George feeling desolate.

The next day a woman called Kumiko walks into George’s shop and shows him her artworks, which look as if they are made from `slices of an impossible array of feathers’. She is equally impressed by the paper crane that George has just made. George and Kumiko start dating and making cutwork `tiles’ together. George finds it hard to pin down Kumiko’s age or nationality but it isn’t long before he asks her to move in with him. This worries Amanda who is still bitter about her own divorce, but during an apparently chance meeting with Kumiko, she falls under the other woman’s spell. The best clue George has to Kumiko’s personality and history is a series of tiles she is making based on a creation myth about a compassionate  cloud-born crane goddess and the spirit of a volcano who fills the world with passion and violence. George and Kumiko’s joint artwork  soon begins to sell for ridiculous sums. One of George’s ex-girlfriends becomes obsessively jealous but the main threat to George’s new-found happiness comes from his own frustration at knowing so little about the woman he loves. Can he accept Kumiko on her own terms or must he uncover the secret she’s hiding? As the ancient myth plays out, will the story end in forgiveness or fire?

All over the world there are folktales about men who marry a beautiful and mysterious woman after performing some kindly act. The husband is told that there is one thing he must never do, such as seeing his wife on a particular day of the week or entering her innermost room. His curiosity always gets the better of him. The over possessive husband discovers his wife’s true nature and loses her as a result. In the Japanese version of this folktale, the husband finds out that he is married to a crane, who can take off her feathers at will. Throughout the novel, I hoped that gentle George wouldn’t make the same mistake as his folktale predecessors, even though it is only human nature to want to know everything about your beloved and to feel excluded if you don’t.

`The Crane Wife’  fuses two very different kinds of story – a spare mythic narrative, full of elegant ambiguity, and a semi-comic novel about an interconnected group of modern Londoners and their life crises. It takes a while for the two strands to come together convincingly. The dreamlike opening chapter of the novel, in  which George encounters the golden-eyed `great white bird’, is extraordinarily beautiful and moving.  Then the mood changes completely with a funny account of Mehmet deliberately messing up customers’ orders in the print shop. Next there is a long digression about incidents from George’s American childhood and then a chapter about rude, aggressive Amanda and her spiteful female co-workers. At this point, I was desperate to get back to George and the woman who might or might not be a crane. I nearly abandoned the novel but I made myself read on and by the end of the book I was very glad that I had persevered.

Ness writes amusingly about the petty annoyances of urban life, such as self-righteous cyclists, and there is some barbed satire about the market for modern art. In one scene wealthy art buyers are baffled by George’s ordinary suburban home and wonder if the whole place is some kind of  ironic `installation’ but there are also passages which celebrate the creativity which can transmute tragic experiences into uplifting art. Ness himself has a gift for creating characters from the inside out. As I got to know the people in the story better, I began to care about them, especially George who `is too aimiable to take quite seriously’  and has to learn that `If there is never a chance of hardness or pain, then softness has no meaning’. I even began to sympathise with sharp-tongued Amanda who realizes that `in her core she was broken, and life was just one long attempt to distract people from noticing’. All the main characters are  looking for new ways to give and receive love and elusive Kumiko is the catalyst. As the novel reaches a surprisingly dramatic climax, the supernatural element seems dominant again but this isn’t a story with just one interpretation. Every reader will take something different away from this updated fable. Until next week….hopefully.