This is how you should begin your novel. Start with a heart-wrenchingly beautiful (and I don’t use these words lightly) first chapter. Move on to a light, dialogue-filled second chapter. In the third chapter, introduce a character who is, well, full of character. Make a Japanese folk tale the backbone of your story, and your reader is now hopelessly hooked.
A couple of years ago I read Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, a retelling of a Russian folk story in which a childless couple make a snow child that then comes to life. The Crane Wife reminded me of Ivey’s book: it’s based on a story in which a man finds an injured crane and later meets a mysterious woman who turns out to be a shapeshifter.
And so begins The Crane Wife. George finds an injured crane in his yard. A few days later a woman named Kumiko comes into his printing shop and shows him some of her artwork. The artwork is, for lack of a better word, magical. In fact, The Crane Wife is not just a retelling of a myth or a love story, it’s a story of what art can do. How it can break your heart, make you lose all reason, play with your brain. In this case, it literally robs George, and many other people, of sense and reasoning. He is obsessed with the art pieces and his own contribution to their creation, while other people are willing to pay ridiculous sums of money to possess these ephemeral arrangements.
Kumiko is so obviously a creature of myth that Ness does nothing to disguise the fact. She is beyond the rules. She wields mysterious power. She is not even likable as a character precisely because she is not human. She is somehow wrong from the moment you meet her. She is too neat, too well-delineated, and yet she is a mere sketch, almost two-dimensional as far as characterization goes. For most of the book, she seems like a less evil version of Wormtongue, with her hold on George and his inability to see the weirdness in their relationship (as in the original folk tale, Kumiko does not let him see where she lives or how she makes her art pieces). For most of the novel, I expected something terrible to happen. In fact, this quote from one of the characters in the book captures the mood perfectly:
‘It’s just that it all seems so precarious, doesn’t it? Like everyone’s happiness could be snatched away at any moment’ .
This is, of course, precisely the problem with books based on folk tales: you know how they end. And yet The Crane Wife fooled me, albeit subtly. I will not spoil it for you, but Ness did something with the ending I did not expect.
And here’s my terrible secret: I’m not a fan of fairy tale retellings. Because quite often they are bland, repackaged with new characters and brought into modernity, but with some of the magic gone and nothing to replace it. And yet I loved The Crane Wife and The Snow Child, because these books were just as magical as the original tales. Ness’ retelling remained true to its roots and the genre — the story remained uncanny and odd to the end. No metaphors, nothing standing in for something else. Future folk tale re-tellers, here’s a quote for you:
There were as many truths – overlapping, stewed together – as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story’ s life. A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.