Giant birds are weird and unnerving. So is abuse.
I’ll admit I’m at something of a loss of words to describe Kelly Barnhill’s The Crane Husband. It’s a slim volume, solidly a novella, which I read in a single night having found it at a local library (but I find a lot of books like that). It has a science-fictional patina over it, set in a pastoral, American-Gothic-esque town somewhere in the Midwest, surrounded by drone-fertilized fields and owned by corporations that won’t let anyone walk in (although the local teenagers party there anyway). That alone would be an interesting premise, the makings of a heartland version of Anne Charnock’s Bridge 108.
But Barnhill has more up her sleeve than just mere near-futures. The basic premise is this: there’s an unhappy family of three living in a house. There’s the mother, who is single; the teenage daughter, the narrator; and the younger son. The mother has a series of trysts with local men that never amount to anything, until now. Her new paramour takes up a lot of her time, clearly the most exciting thing to happen in years, leading her to neglect her children.
Also, he's a six-foot-tall crane (the bird, not the construction vehicle).
The admittedly amateur literary critic in me is tempted to brand The Crane Husband as magical realism (its approach to the supernatural reminded me of Shaun Prescott’s The Town). What is so striking, and so unnerving, about this book is how the fact that the mother’s new beau is a giant walking bird is never thought of amiss. It’s just… normal. It feels like this is a world where humans hook up with sparrows and elope with ravens, but this crane is the only bird, indeed the only animal, that shows up in a human-like context. Combining this with the subtle but clear demonstration that this is the near future, The Crane Husband is suffused with a dreamlike atmosphere, a feeling of being unmoored from reality that reminds me of perhaps Jorge Luis Borges, and as hard as it is to describe, it is very compelling.
This book can be challenging to read, not because of any body horror, but through the quotidian horror of dysfunctional families. As Tolstoy said, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and this family’s problems only begin with the crane. The choice of narrator really shines here; a teenage protagonist is old enough to understand what is happening, and has a good inkling of why it is happening, but is vulnerable enough for the pain of it all to strangle her with no easy exit. It is a coming-of-age-story, albeit a twisted one, a way I wish no child would ever have to come of age (but far too many do). It is a story of parental neglect, pure and simple, and it will move you, enrage you, and force you to cry in equal measure.
This is yet another narrator who reminds me of /r/raisedbynarcissists, and of abused people I have known; I give my kudos to Barnhill for getting the psychology of this so right. Parental abuse is a deeply isolating experience, and our narrator is isolated in more ways than one. She finds her classmates in school to be practically an alien species, and a high school party to be a deeply foreign experience. I get it; I was like that once, and this book felt very real to me because of that. Abuse is weird, and it is total. It changes everything about a victim’s life, and destroys their ability to relate to others. It’s not uncommon for survivors to simply not be believed as their experiences are so out of the norm for most people. That truth, I think, is the core of The Crane Husband: that life would be easier for survivors if every abuser had a coat of feathers. They’d be easier to avoid, for one.
Highlights: The really unsettling atmosphere.
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.
POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.
Reference: Barnhill, Kelly. The Crane Husband [Tor, 2023].