Whether they take place in Ireland, Texas, Illinois, Amsterdam, or Scotland, the marvelous stories in “The Souvenir Museum,” Elizabeth McCracken’s impressive third story collection evoke moving depictions of marriage and parenthood, and love, betrayal, and loneliness. McCracken, who was born in Boston, has also written two novels and a memoir. Many of the twelve stories in this collection were originally published in Zoetrope All-Story, others in The Atlantic, Harper’s, and on Oprah.com; some have been included in “The Best American Short Stories,” “The Pushcart Prize,” and “The O. Henry Prize Stories.”
In McCracken’s dramatic and often humorous stories you’ll find a goluptious coterie of eccentric and fascinating, if not entirely likable, characters whose stories unfold in a steady stream of exquisite writing. Evocative and often droll turns of phrase concoct mental images of shoes that are “damp as oysters,” voices brew like “hot cider,” flesh can be “so fair-skinned as to be combustible,” and the “hatred of castoffery came upon her like an allergy.” Inanimate objects come to life, too. A hotel named “The Narcissus” sits “on the edge of a lake and admired its own reflection” and skies are as “mild as a milk-glass rabbit.”
Her collection begins with “The Irish Wedding,” the first of four stories about Jack and Sadie, originally published in The Atlantic. It’s early in their relationship when the two travel from Boston to Ireland for the wedding of Jack’s middle older sister, who is marrying a Dutchman. Jack, whose given name is Leonard, is the only family member who was born in America. The rest of the family are English; Jack insists he is, too, but he can’t pass for an Englishman and Sadie can’t really pass as part of the family. After she meets Jack’s three sisters and father, Sadie admits to Jack, “I’ve had anxiety dreams more relaxing.”
McCracken scatters the other Jack and Sadie stories in non-chronological order throughout the book. In “A Splinter,” we discover how Leonard becomes Jack and learns about love when, at sixteen, he runs away from Ithaca, New York. He busses tables on the QE2 on his way to England where he falls in love with a female ventriloquist twice his age. In “The Get-Go,” Jack, now 36, and Sadie have been together twelve years when Sadie’s mom Linda injures herself at home. Mom’s friend Arturo calls Jack, not Sadie, and tell him Linda needs his help, and Linda asks Jack, not Sadie, to look after her. Later in the collection, in “Two Sad Clowns,” we learn Sadie and Jack met when she was 21 and he was 27. They meet a guy Jack calls Samuel Beckett and help him walk home. The story foreshadows the couple’s inevitable marriage with the equivocal, sardonic prophesy, “They never should have married, probably.”
In other stories about family, a man who tries to act as if his ailing seventy-seven-year-old father is fine, takes him to Scotland to tour the birdlife, the castles, and the coastline. In “Mistress Mickle All at Sea,” a forty-nine-year-old woman travels to Rotterdam on New Year’s Eve to visit her forty-two-year-old loser of a half brother. Mistress Mickle, actually Jenny Early, is an actress who now has a gig playing the villainess in a children’s game show. In Rotterdam, “She felt the peculiar calm of not understanding the ambient language, a state she loved: it was like having part of your brain induced into a coma.”
Two of the best stories in this collection, “Birdsong from the Radio” and “It’s Not You,” were originally published in Zoetrope. “Birdsong,” also included in the 2015 “O. Henry” anthology, reads like a fairy tale, in which McCracken luxuriates in a bit of anthropomorphism. Leonora loves her children so much she wants to eat them. McCracken even endows Leonora with roan hair and taurine eyes. Leonora wonders, “Perhaps she was already turning into an animal.” “It’s Not You,” selected for the “Best American Short Stories” (2020) and “The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses” (2021), is set in the Narcissus Hotel in “the long-ago days of 1993.” In that story, a woman finds her boyfriend with another woman. She packs a suitcase with a cosmetic bag, a bag of apples, and a bottle of whiskey and gets drunk at the Narcissus Hotel where she meets a radio advice-show host.
McCracken concludes her collection with “Nothing, Darling, Only Darling, Darling,” the final Jack and Sadie story and final depiction of love and marriage and other minor, random souvenirs. After Jack’s nephew Thomas kills himself in Poland, Thomas’s death convinces Sadie to go through with the wedding: “without marriage he was, at his death, Jack’s nephew, not hers. So they would marry at last, and Jack would arrange everything, because Sadie, while not a reluctant wife, was at thirty-nine a very reluctant bride.” That story harks back to the first, “Irish Wedding,” in which a Dickensian door knocker looks like it’s ready to morph into somebody’s face suggesting a warning of what might lie ahead. For McCracken the thing that may lie ahead is a hybrid between dimly-lit game show, ghost story, puzzle, and five doors: “There was a lion behind one of those doors,” “a happy future behind another, a lifetime supply of Rice-A-Roni behind a third” and, behind the other two, life’s real astonishments.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at email@example.com or through his blog at http://josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/
THE SOUVENIR MUSEUM: STORIES
Ecco 256 pages; $26.99