Elizabeth McCracken’s 2019 novel, “Bowlaway,” begins when a woman appears in a cemetery. It’s “midspring, Massachusetts, the turn of the century before last,” and, over the course of the novel, the life of this mysterious woman will take on near mythical proportions. Bertha Truitt is stout, alluring, and a real whiz at candlepin bowling. The alley she opens will become an axis around which the town reluctantly spins, even though Truitt refuses to tell a soul about her origins. “When asked about her past, she waved it away,” McCracken writes. “‘I’m here,’ she said. ‘Wherever that is.’”
Many of McCracken’s characters, like her novels, have a way of doing this: they reel you in with a joke, a wink, or a dry remark. They tremble with emotional vulnerability (or make you tremble in recognition). All the while, they retain a core of mystery, which is part of their charm. Take the spinster librarian from 2007′s “The Giant House,” who, with the exception of her deep affection for an exceptionally tall boy, lives at a willful remove from those around her. Or the profligate liar and comedian, Rocky, in “Niagara Falls All Over Again,” McCracken’s 2001 novel about a pair of vaudeville performers. There is only so much truth some characters will allow you to see.
McCracken’s new novel, “The Hero of This Book,” has this same playful, mythic, and mysterious quality, though the circumstances have changed. Instead of Massachusetts, we’re transported to the banks of the Thames, in London. And instead of following a woman who survived against all odds in a New England cemetery, we are asked to remember one who has disappeared from this earth.
An unnamed narrator, sharing many of McCracken’s biographical details — she, too, lives in Texas and is a writing teacher — mourns the loss of her mother. “I apologize if you hate such narrators and such novels,” the narrator muses. “I hate novels with unnamed narrators. I didn’t mean to write one. Write enough books and these things will happen.”
When she is not offering deadpan asides about writing or recounting the exceptional life of her mother, the narrator is on a kind of grief holiday. She visits landmarks she had once seen with her mother by her side, from the Tate Modern to a West End stage, as well as attractions her mother, confined to a scooter, would not have been able to access. “I realized my mother could have gone on the London Eye: She could have driven her scooter right on,” considers the narrator with some regret. “I had failed to know this and so I had failed to take her. Was this grief?”
Some readers may be confused, or angered, by the narrator’s insistence that “The Hero of This Book” is not a memoir. After all, the real McCracken has written a moving one, “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination,” about the death of her stillborn son. Yet the narrator of “Hero” is relatively straight-forward about her refusal to conform to readers’ expectations. “The fictional me is unmarried, an only child, childless. The actual me is not,” she explains. “No, I’m telling the truth now, I swear. I have a brother, and some offspring, and am married. I love everyone and I want to keep them safe, safe from me particularly.”
Perhaps there is something dangerous, or predatory, the narrator suggests, about a book that purports to tell the truth of someone else’s life. At one point, upon hearing a detail from her mother’s childhood that had never before been disclosed, the narrator calls herself “a vampire,” immediately wishing she had known the detail earlier, the better to put it to use in her fiction.
Still, “Hero” is evidence of what an alternative strategy to remembrance can offer, and the narrator’s mother, in all her imagined glory, emerges in tender specificities. She is vain about her long, black hair and has wide, short feet “in the odd no-man’s land between children’s shoes and women’s.” The owner of no fewer than three waffle irons, she insists on keeping all of them in a house bursting with too much clutter.
She has many of what she calls her “talents,” including the ability to fall gracefully, without injury. Throughout a lifetime of walking with the help of canes, strangers accost her with questions about her body, her unfamiliar gait. In one memorable scene, the narrator recalls hearing her mother describe this condition as “cerebral palsy” for the first time, at age 26. “She’d never used those words before, I understood, because my grandmother hadn’t liked them…. Now my grandmother was dead and my mother could describe herself any way she liked.”
Death offers survivors freedom of expression — or, perhaps, freedom from guilt or harm — to explain things any way they like. McCracken puts it more eloquently: “We’re not our souls, we’re not our bodies; we’re the shimmering border between.” Such a liminal space might only be described with any success in the emotional reality of a novel. The result is a beguiling meditation on family, grief, and caretaking that also addresses the burdens of storytelling: how much freedom you have — or don’t — to write about family members after they’re gone. With infinite freedom to invent, McCracken sparkles. “I’m here,” the narrator’s mother insists on every page. “Wherever that is.”
THE HERO OF THIS BOOK
By Elizabeth McCracken
Ecco, 192 pages, $27
Kristen Evans is a freelance critic. She writes about books, movies, and television for outlets like BuzzFeed, The Los Angeles Times, Literary Hub, The New Republic, and elsewhere.