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One From the Archive: ‘The Crane Wife’ by Patrick Ness ***

I first read Patrick Ness a couple of months ago, when I purchased the beautiful A Monster Calls on Claire at Word by Word‘s recommendation, which I very much enjoyed.  When we at The Literary Sisters were contacted to see if we wanted a review copy of his new novel by Penguin, of course we said yes.

‘The Crane Wife’ by Patrick Ness (Canongate/Penguin)

Each time I see the title of The Crane Wife, I find myself inwardly singing a little of the beautiful ‘The Crane Wife 1 & 2′ by The Decemberists.  Imagine my delight then, when I opened this volume and found the very same song – albeit with a different portion of the tune to those which I find myself singing – at its very beginning.  The lyrics sum up the beginning of Ness’ novel perfectly:

“And all the stars were crashing around
As I laid eyes on what I’d found

It was a white crane
It was a helpless thing
On a red stain
With an arrow its wing”

The Crane Wife is based upon a Japanese folk tale, which you can read about here.  Ness’ take on it has been branded ‘a tale of passion and sacrifice on the level of dream and myth’.  His novel sets out to imagine ‘how the life of a broken-hearted man is transformed’ when he chooses to rescue a crane which he finds in his garden – ‘a great white bird, as tall as he was, taller, willowy as a reed’ – whose wing has cruelly been shot at with an arrow, which his first task is to remove.  George Duncan, the aforementioned ‘broken-hearted man’, has been living alone for ten years following his divorce.  He is an American man, nearing middle age, and lives in a London suburb: ‘It was in places like this that eternity happened’.

Ness’ turns of phrase are beautiful and startling at times: ‘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’ is the intriguing way in which it begins.  Sadly though, such sentences are few and far between as soon as the story begins to gather momentum.

Alongside the story of George finding the crane, we are given a rather in-depth consideration of his childhood and early adult life.  Whilst this is interesting and quite amusing at times, its tone detracts from the overall beauty which the novel could have held, were it just about George and the crane.  Because the story flits to George’s past and stays there for large chunks of the novel, it does not feel as though the entirety has been built up as well as it could have been.  The Crane Wife also lacks the beauty of A Monster Calls.  It is an interesting take on the original story, but it is not one which I will personally be urging everyone to go and read.

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‘The Good Earth’ by Pearl S. Buck *** (Classics Club #3)

The third entry upon my Classics Club list was a novel which I had been meaning to read since I first started taking adult literature seriously, at around the age of nine or so.  Perhaps rather predictably, I waited for quite some years before purchasing a copy, but I made myself read it sooner rather than later.  To say that I was disappointed with the novel is fair; I believe that the setting and story had been put on a pedestal of sorts in my mind, and almost as soon as I began to read The Good Earth whilst on a relatively long train journey, I knew that I wouldn’t love it. 

Its premise – as I find with many classic or ‘modern classic’ novels – is fascinating: “In The Good Earth Pearl S. Buck paints an indelible portrait of China in the 1920s, when the last emperor reigned and the vast political and social upheavals of the twentieth century were but distant rumblings. This moving, classic story of the honest farmer Wang Lung and his selfless wife O-Lan is must reading for those who would fully appreciate the sweeping changes that have occurred in the lives of the Chinese people during the last century. Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck traces the whole cycle of life: its terrors, its passions, its ambitions and rewards. Her brilliant novel–beloved by millions of readers–is a universal tale of an ordinary family caught in the tide of history.”

Whilst The Good Earth was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, a year after its publication, I could not help but feel that the prose which had been used was rather too simplistic to build the levels of emotion which should have been present in such a novel.  I expected that Buck’s writing would veer toward the poetic, but in places it felt incredibly flat, largely due to its matter-of-fact third person narrative.  Some of her descriptions were rather nice; however, it did not seem as though the same amount of care had been taken throughout to make the prose feel consistent.

Buck’s perception of the Chinese culture was interesting, but I had the feeling that she was merely scratching at the surface for the most part.  One would think that as a resident of China herself, she could perhaps have included several details which are – or were – not that commonplace, but there was no real sense of her delving deeply into the history and social aspects of the country.  Due to the detached way in which the novel was both told – and, it could be said, constructed – I did not feel much sympathy at all for any of the protagonists, and did not often find myself agreeing with their actions either.

To conclude, whilst I have given The Good Earth three stars, I feel that my rating is rather generous.  Whilst I was relatively interested in the novel up until around the halfway point, and it did largely keep my attention, the second half of the story was rather bland.  Rather than rushing out to read more of Buck’s work, as I had half-expected I would when I added The Good Earth to my Classics Club list, I do not feel at all enthused to pick up any more of her novels.

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One From the Archive: Five Favourite Authors

First published in July 2013.

1. Elizabeth McCracken
I read the marvellous The Giant’s House whilst I was still a teenager, and have read it many more times since.  McCracken’s writing is truly lovely, and the characters she crafts stay with the reader long after the last page has been read.

Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson

2. Tove Jansson
Jansson is best known as the creator of The Moomins, but her adult fiction is just as wonderful.  To fit the season, I would recommend The Summer Book, which is a glorious musing on life on a tiny Scandinavian island.

3. Jon McGregor
I first read McGregor a good few years ago, when my Dad recommended the stunning If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things to me.  It is a novel which challenges your perceptions, and its storyline and characters, whilst not named, are so very memorable.

4. Sylvia Townsend Warner
Despite only having read one of her novels (Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman) and one of her short story collections (The Doll’s House and Other Stories), Townsend Warner is one of my favourite authors on the Virago list.  She creates such atmosphere, and her characters are wonderfully crafted.  The majority of her stories contain unexpected twists, and her writing is very lovely indeed.  I would recommend beginning with either of the titles listed above in order to get a real sense of her style.

Stella Benson

Stella Benson

5. Stella Benson
For some reason unbeknownst to me, Stella Benson is rather a neglected twentieth century author.  Her writing is glorious, and the way in which she uses magical realism against the ordinary aspects of the lives of her characters is marvellous.  I would recommend the lovely Living Alone, set during the First World War.  Who cannot fail to be charmed by the following author introduction?

This is not a real book. It does not deal with real people, nor should it be read by real people. But there are in the world so many real books already written for the benefit of real people, and there are still so many to be written, that I cannot believe that a little alien book such as this, written for the magically-inclined minority, can be considered too assertive a trespasser.

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20 Books of Summer: ‘Sunflower’ by Rebecca West ****

I very much enjoy Rebecca West’s work (The Return of the Soldier ranks amongst my absolute favourites), and was so looking forward to beginning Sunflower.  It is the 362nd book upon the marvellous Virago Modern Classics list, and the novel itself is also part of both my Classics Club and 20 Books of Summer lists.  Rebecca West forms an entry upon mine and Yamini’s Fifty Women Project too, so Sunflower was a marvellous investment, which made me feel temporarily ahead in the seas of lists which I am essentially drowning in.

The ‘Sunflower’ of the novel’s title is a rich and famous actress, originally known by the name of Sybil Fassendyll, who is ‘mistress to the ageing Lord Essington.  She has the world at her feet, except that Society shuns her as it shuns all women who transgress its codes.  Though the tyrannical Essington is destroying her self-esteem, she fears the loss of his protection – until she meets the millionaire politician Francis Pitt, vulgar, ugly and utterly captivating.  Oblivious to all his faults, Sunflower pins her hopes on this new relationship.  Essington’s love is dead; Pitt’s has yet to be conquered’.

Upon her wishes, portraying as it does her tumultuous relationship with H.G. Wells, Sunflower was not published during West’s lifetime, and first reached the public eye in 1986.  Throughout, West – sometimes heartbreakingly – writes of some of the aspects of their intense liaison, which would have been, one imagines, incredibly difficult to recount in such detail: ‘It was all right.  There was really no reason at all why she should not go.  It was simply that she was so unused to liberty, so seldom free of the leash that jerked her back to heel whenever she was doing anything she enjoyed, that she felt at a loss when she was on her own’.  West demonstrates the complex cruelties of Essington from the very beginning, ensuring in consequence that he is fully-developed as a protagonist in just the first few pages of the story alone: ‘Though he behaved to her much of the time as if she were his most alienated enemy, he could simultaneously behave to her as if he were an ardent lover in the first and most sensitive days of courtship, so far as the ready harbouring of tender grievances was concerned on the ground that she did not love him as much as he loved her, that she had missed some fine shade of his devotion, he would hate her malevolently for a week’.

Throughout, West is incredibly assertive, and aware of the depths of human feeling and emotion: ‘Indeed, she [Sunflower] contained within herself two of the great legendary figures that man has invented everywhere and in all times: Venus and Cinderella.  And they were not – he bade her remember – invented idly.  They fed desires that must be fed if man is not to lose heart and die.  For Venus promises him that there shall be absolute beauty in this world, that the universe shall bring forth perfection which shall make its imperfection a little thing, lightly to be borne; and Cinderella promises him that this harsh order of things which is life may be only temporary and subject to reversal at any time, so that the mighty may be put down from their seats and those of low degree exalted’.  Another such instance of this is as follows: ‘But if a man says you are beautiful and you are not, then it is a proof that he loves you.  The alchemy of loyalty is working on him, he is not separate from you…  Decidedly there are other fair seasons than the spring, other conditions than beauty for making people live kindly’.

As ever, I also very much admired how original West’s character descriptions are: ‘He paused and looked at her out of queer grey eyes which were the colour of bad weather, with extreme appreciation and utter lack of interest’.  Sunflower is a rich and vivid novel, packed with equal measures of introspection and heartache.  It is one which I would heartily recommend.

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