Kelly Barnhill, "The Crane Husband" (Tordotcom, 2023)


Today I talked to Kelly Barnhill about her book The Crane Husband (Tordotcom, 2023).

Our unnamed narrator, a fifteen-year-old girl, manages to care for her six-year-old brother and creative but irresponsible mother by skipping school and selling her mother’s artwork. Her father taught her everything useful before he died, and much like Katniss in The Hunger Games, she devotes herself to keeping her small family afloat (and dodging the social worker’s efforts to intervene). The Crane Husband opens with the arrival of her mother’s newest lover, an insolent giant crane that demands every bit of her mother’s attention while returning her affection with raucous sex and deep cuts from his razor-sharp beak.

From this surrealist beginning, things get progressively stranger. In some ways, this surreal, poetic novella reminded me of Australian author Kathleen Jenning’s eerie novella, Flyway. There are fatherless children fighting for survival, allusion to ancestral violence, and odd metamorphoses taking place in remote locations. Underneath the inexplicable events lie opposing motivations—the wish to escape both love and duty fighting with the desire to nurture and care for others. The two novels’ daughters are left to sort through the wreckage and attempt to make wise decisions.

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