This book is based on a traditional Japanese folktale, in which a young man (or in some versions, a childless married couple) rescues a crane from a hunter’s trap. Soon afterward he is (or they are) visited by a beautiful young woman who is mysteriously vague about her past history. The young man marries her, or the couple adopt her as their daughter. She makes beautiful weavings that her benefactors are able to sell for a great deal of money, but she insists on doing so in secret. Finally, unable to resist their curiosity, they peer into the room where she is working—and see the crane, making the weavings from her own feathers. When she spots them, she sadly flies away, leaving them forever bereft. Many cultures have similar myths, showing the dangers of (as one character in this book puts it) being too greedy for another person, insisting on taking more of them than they are willing to give: the story of Cupid and Psyche in Greek mythology, and the tales of the Selkies (seal-folk) in Celtic, come to mind.
Ness uses the Japanese story, but he expands on it considerably. His version, set in modern London, focuses on three people: Kumiko, the crane wife; George, the overly “nice” middle-aged man who rescues the crane and falls in love with Kumiko, uniting his own private art form (paper cuttings made from the pages of discarded books) with hers (tiles on which are pasted designs made of feathers) to spectacular result; and Amanda, his socially challenged adult daughter. A fourth character, Amanda’s irritating office-mate Rachel, also plays an increasingly important part in the tale.
None of the characters speaks in the first person, but the styles in which their sub-stories are told are noticeably different. Kumiko’s sections are suitably mythological, branching off from the original folktale to tell the love story of a bird-winged goddess of forgiveness and a volcano who embodies all the destructive aspects of male energy yet nonetheless adores her. Amanda’s sections, by greatest contrast, are very everyday and, especially at first, snarky to the point of being quite funny; the dialogue in her early picnic with Rachel and another coworker, Mei, sounds straight out of middle school. The parts devoted to George, the central link, have a style somewhere in the middle, as befits him; he’s the sweet guy whom everybody likes and worries about but nobody remembers or stays with for very long. I found the difference in styles jarring at first, but as time went on and the characters revealed new depths, they came to harmonize very well.
The book is well written throughout, full of excellent psychological insights. It was perhaps a little unlikely that all the characters would be (or become) so perceptive and so able to voice their perceptions, but I enjoyed what they said and thought so much that I didn’t feel like quibbling about that. The pace is not fast, but I never found that it lagged. I recommend this book to anyone who likes an excellently written modern tale with fantasy/mythological elements.