The Extraordinary Happens Every Day
A Monster Calls
You may remember that last year Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls was one of my few 5 star reads for the year, a young adult novel, it told the story of a teenage boy coping with his mother’s illness and his nightly visits from a tree-like monster creating an allegory that captures the angst and silent rage of a fearful boy like nothing I have ever read.
Not only is the storytelling incredible as well as moving, the author was telling a story that another author Siobhan Dowd wanted to tell, but her own illness kept her from doing so. If you haven’t read it, keep an eye out for it, it is a timeless classic.
I had seen a few reviews for The Crane Wife, an adult novel by Patrick Ness that sounded intriguing and when our local English bookstore put the hardcover version of it out in their sale, I snapped it up and immediately stopped everything I was reading to begin reading. Such is the power of words written by Patrick Ness for this reader. He is a writer who deftly uses a touch of magic realism which I like, not to dwell in it all the time, but when used sparingly with purpose to elevate or create a turning point in a story, I find it no trouble to accept.
The Crane Wife is inspired by the Japanese myth of the same name Ness was read in kindergarten by the Japanese-American teacher he adored, in which a sail maker finds an injured crane and helps it and the next day a mysterious woman walks into his life, whom he falls in love with and marries. She tells him, “I can weave you beautiful sails, as long as you don’t watch me weave”. She does so, they grow rich, until he becomes too consumed by greed and curiosity and breaks his promise, only to experience irretrievable loss.
The story stayed with the author over the years and then many years later he heard The Decemberists song The Crane Wife 1 which captured the emotion of the story just as he felt it. It was the catalyst to start writing, he was ready to tell the story that had been in incubation for so long. And what a beautiful song, I can’t stop listening to it myself.
In this novel, George wakes one morning to hear a mournful keening come from his backyard and in the freezing temperatures, investigates to find a large crane with an arrow shot through its wing. He assists the crane and then watches it fly off. The next day in his print shop as he is working on his latest obsession, making paper cut-outs from second-hand abandoned books, in walks a woman we come to know as Kumiko, an event that marks the beginning of an artistic and love bound encounter, touching the lives of George, his daughter Amanda and those close to them.
George is in his 40’s and in something of a comfortable rut, amicably divorced, running his small shop with the help of Mehmet, his assistant and alter-ego. His daughter Amanda lives alone with her son Jean-Pierre, her uncontrollable anger having driven out her French husband, despite their still burning love.
There is much unsaid between characters and that which is communicated, isn’t always done so as it was intended, until Kumiko and George begin to collaborate through their art, work that affects all who see it, accessing those uncommunicative wordless depths and giving them expression. The work affects them all, artists and observers.
It is a story about humanity, how even those who act out of kindness make mistakes, are tempted by greed and suffer tragic consequences. It is also about how a story changes depends on who is telling it, the power of the imagination in creating different perspectives, viewed in the shadow or in the light. Kumiko says,
‘A story must be told. How else can we live in this world that makes no sense?’
‘How else can we live with the extraordinary?’ George murmured.
‘Yes,’ Kumiko said, seriously. ‘Exactly that. The extraordinary happens all the time. So much, we can’t take it. Life and happiness and heartache and love. If we couldn’t put it into a story-‘
‘And explain it-‘
‘No!’ she said, suddenly sharp. ‘Not explain. 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. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel. 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 not all, never, all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us.’ She sagged a little, as if exhausted by this speech. ‘As it surely, surely, would.’
In the beginning I was reminded a little of Nick Hornby, the London novel set in a shop, the banter between employer and employee, the vulnerable, angry young woman, the great dialogue and strong characters that come to life from the very first pages and the immediate interest in what will befall them, wondering what consequences their flaws will make manifest. But then Kumiko walks in, a traveller from afar and I remember this is Patrick Ness, something extraordinary is going to happen, even if it is not immediately apparent.
He writes with compassion and as a reader I trust him, whether it’s tragedy, darkness or exhilaration, he handles it all with responsibility, without resorting to cliché and makes me want to slow read every word.
Coincidentally, yesterday on The Guardian, Patrick Ness participated in the books podcast performing an exclusive short story, an addition to his short story collection for adults Topics About Which I Know Nothing which is to be republished and talked to Claire Armistead about writing short stories and the differences in writing for adults and teenagers.
Armistead thought he was being coy about the differences between young adult (YA) and adult fiction, suggesting YA books had a ‘more cheerful trajectory’ to which he replied:
‘I always say the concerns of a teenage novel tend to be about testing your boundaries and finding out who you are and finding out the limits of yourself and crossing those limits and discovering it hurts or discovering that it’s a new thing that you can be and are, and an adult novel tends to be …about someone whose boundaries are already solidified and the story tends to be about what happens when you are taken outside those boundaries or how those boundaries are limited to you …both make for fantastic stories, intellectual ones, complex ones, the concerns might be different, but it’s not a simplistic thing, that you must be direct in one and indirect in another’ Patrick Ness