Helen Brown talks to the award-winning children’s writer Patrick Ness about his exceptional new novel for adults, The Crane Wife.
The sound that wakes George Duncan is “a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt”, but, being the kind of man he is, the hero of Patrick Ness’s new novel assumes it’s his bladder. In fact, it’s a dazzling white crane, brought down in George’s suburban garden by “some kind of terrifyingly proper arrow”. Stepping forward to help the bird, George finds himself in “one of those special corners of what’s real, one of those moments, only a handful of which he could recall throughout his lifetime, where the world dwindled down to almost no one, where it seemed to pause just for him so that he could, for a moment, be seized into life”. The next day a mysterious woman called Kumiko walks into George’s London print shop, and changes everything.
The Crane Wife is a special novel: a perfect fusion of surreal imagery and beautifully crafted internal logic. Turning it over in my hands once I’d finished, I began to think of it as the literary equivalent of a Japanese puzzle box with poetry, ideas and jokes twisting and sliding out of it at surprising angles.
“It’s based, of course, on the Japanese folk tale, which I first heard at kindergarten in Hawaii,” says Ness, leaning intently over a glass of pineapple juice (another Hawaiian hangover) in the café at Waterstones. Although he’s written for adults before, Ness is best known for his award-winning teen fiction. Now in his early forties, there’s still the intensity of adolescence in his speech, which punctuates passion with the odd, self-effacing: “Yeah, whaddever.”
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