George is a kindly, meek and gentle man. He’s the kind of man people like, but don’t really respect that much. One night he hears a keen (It’s italicized in the book.) That this story begins with a lamentation of the dead seemed ominous. He goes outside to see what is wrong and finds a crane with an arrow in its wing. With some squeamishness, he removes it, saving the crane’s life. This is just like the farmer in the Japanese fairy tale Tsuru no Ongaeshi .
The Crane Wife is a modern fairy tale come to life. It expands on Tsuru no Ongaeshi (The Crane Returns a Favor), but really, it is a universal fairy tale. From Snow White, to Sleeping Beauty, to Bluebeard’s Wife, Melusine and East of the Sun, West of the Moon, fairy tales often feature curiosity leading to trouble. The curious are not bad people, just curious, but nonetheless, curiosity leads them to taste the poisoned apple, prick themselves on the enchanted spindle, look in the forbidden room, spy on Saturday night, and light a candle in the night. Sorrow ensues, though they usually, but not always, surmount the challenge and live happily ever after.
Soon after, a woman named Kumiko walks into his shop asking him to copy some of her feather collage tiles. He is entranced, but when she see the book carvings he does, and puts her work with his, together they create impossible beauty. There is an alchemy the happens when his book cuttings are coupled with her feather collages. The author acknowledges the remarkable work of Su Blackwell as an inspiration. When their art marries so well, surely they will too, and quicker than his daughter and ex-wife approve, George is engaged to Kumiko.
Meanwhile, his daughter Amanda (beloved) has her own story. She is a woman who yearns, she even yearns for what she has when she has it. No one can love her enough and really, she does not want to join any club that would have her in it, to steal from Groucho. She’s prickly, angry and socially inept. She wants friends, but only alienates people with her awkward and often angry style of communicating. However, she adores her son and that love, at least is uncomplicated. Unlike her love for her ex-husband and her parents.
Meanwhile, it becomes clear that the tile set that Kumiko is making with George is an illustration of the crane fairy tale with complications. It is a love story, an impossible love story between incompatible beings, the crane and the volcano. They love but they must always withhold, never releasing the full power of their passion because that would kill the other. It becomes a damaging love affair, one where the volcano takes out his frustration on the planet with war and violence.
The story is mythic in its themes, powerful ideas weave throughout. The stories of the tiles have the tone and language of ancient sacred texts. But woven throughout there is this prosaic ordinariness, a bringing the story back down to earth that is, I believe, intended to ground the story, but sometimes makes it unbalanced.
Take the very first paragraph. It opens with mythic power and ends with the need to piss. “What actually woke him was the unearthly sound itself – a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt – but he, being who he was, assumed it was his bladder.” It works as an opening, but repeated through the story and I began to wish he would pick a lane.
I enjoyed The Crane Wife and am glad my friend Gidge recommended it. As a fan of the local band, The Decembrists, I was familiar with the original story because I have listened to their album with the same name so many times.
Each feather it fell from skin
Till threadbare while she grew thin
How were my eyes so blinded?
Each feather it fell from skin
This is a fairy tale, so suspend your disbelief, though sometimes the real life elements seem more unlikely than the mythical. There are a few actions that are out of character. I always find that far more disconcerting and harder to accept than cranes and volcanoes who fall in love.