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Review: The Crane Wife, By Patrick Ness

A spiritual love story takes flight

Patrick Ness has won more prizes for his children's novels than he has letters in his surname, notching up the Carnegie Medal twice, the Guardian Children's Fiction Award, the Booktrust Teenage Prize, and the Costa Children's Award. His fiction includes fantastical elements: life on another planet in the Chaos Walking trilogy; a talking tree in A Monster Calls (the book he wrote based on ideas by the late Siobhan Dowd.) But the latter novel also showcases his ability to deal with difficult subjects such as terminal illness and absent fathers. And the merging of reality and the magical in A Monster Calls is echoed in his latest novel, The Crane Wife, which is intended for adults (though it would also appeal to teenagers).

As with A Monster Calls, the story centres on a somewhat pitiful individual. George is 48, amicably divorced, and liked by all. That's the problem: he's liked, for his niceness, but women repeatedly dump him. His job in a print shop is undemanding. One night, he hears the keening of an injured crane in his garden, and tends its injury. The next day, his life changes for the better: he falls in love with an enigmatic and elusive woman called Kumiko, and discovers an artistic talent that brings him success.

Allegory and symbolism play a large part in this novel; the crane an avian embodiment of Kumiko, who represents new opportunity and the human interaction which must be grasped wholeheartedly in order to find joy. Kumiko has a story to tell through her art, one in which anger is destructive and love involves accepting loss.

The novel is not excessively spiritual or New-Agey: the sections grounded in realism are enthralling and delightful. George's daughter Amanda is a wonderful creation, a profanity-spouting divorcee whose tough exterior is a protective carapace. Her work colleague Rachel is deliciously bitchy and manipulative. George's assistant, the feckless but likeable Mehmet, is an unwitting source of humour.

The dialogue is natural and inspired, and sparkles with latent tension. Ness is an accessible writer who expresses insights with throwaway simplicity: "At eight, the definition of normal is whatever is happening in front of you." He employs a matter-of-fact wit that enlivens descriptions which might, in other hands, be mundane: "Roy [would] push the bike ... its green metal bulk as steadfast and calm as a cow" or: "She never tried to explain this part of her job to others, not after seeing how their faces stretched back in terror that she might keep talking about it."

Ness touches on themes including the subjectivity of stories and the difficulty of ascertaining truth; unrequited love; and the use of anger as a defence mechanism. I found myself mildly impatient to rush through the more ethereal, mythical parts in order to feast on his talents as a realist.