The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken (#NovNov22)

The hero of this book is Elizabeth McCracken’s mother, Natalie (1935–2018).

Is it autofiction or a bereavement memoir? Both and neither. It’s clear that the subject is her late mother, but less obvious that the first-person narrator must be McCracken or that the framework she has set up – an American writer wanders London, seeing the sights but mostly reminiscing about her mother – is other than fiction.

In August 2019, the writer rents a hotel room in Clerkenwell and plays the flaneuse around the city. Her tour takes in the London Eye, a ferry ride across the Thames from one Tate museum to another, a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and so on. London had been a favourite destination for her and her mother, their final trip together falling just three years before. McCracken is so funny on the quirks of English terminology – and cuisine:

The least appetizing words in the world concern English food: salad cream, baps, butties, carvery, goujons.

Always, though, her thoughts return to her mother, whom she describes through bare facts and apt anecdotes. A twin born with cerebral palsy. A little disabled Jewish lady with unmanageable hair. An editor and writer based at Boston University. Opinionated, outspoken, optimistic; set in her ways. Delightful and maddening in equal measure – like all of us. (“All mothers are unknowable, being a subset of human beings.”)

The writer’s parents were opposites you never would have paired up. (Her father, too, is gone now, but his death is only an aside here.) Their declines were predictably hard to forecast. The New England family home has been emptied and is now on the market; an excruciating memory resurfaces from the auction of the contents.

As well as a tribute to a beloved mother and a matter-of-fact record of dealing with ageing parents and the aftermath of loss, this is a playful cross-examination of literary genres:

I hate novels with unnamed narrators. I didn’t mean to write one.

My mother was known to say with disgust, “Oh, those people who write memoirs about the worst thing that ever happened to them!” I said it, too. Some years later a terrible thing happened to me, and there was nothing to do but to write a memoir.

That was An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, about the stillbirth of her first child. As bereavement memoirs go, it’s one of the very best and still, 10 years after I read it, stands as one of my absolute favourite books, with some of the strongest last lines out there. McCracken has done it again, producing a book that, though very different in approach and style (this time reminding me most of Jenny Offill’s Weather), somehow achieves the same poignancy and earns a spot in my personal hall of fame, for the reasons you’ll see below…

 

The hero of this review is my mother, Carolyn (1947–2022).

I find it hard to believe that she’s been gone for three and a half weeks already. One week after her funeral, I was reading this book on my Kindle in London, waiting for a climate march to start. So many lines penetrated my numbness; all could pertain to my own mother:

[Of a bad time when her mother was in hospital with an infection] Those days were a dress rehearsal for my mother’s easy actual death seven years later.

My mother was a great appreciator. It was a pleasure to take her places, because she enjoyed herself so much and so audibly. That was her form of gratitude.

My mother all by herself was a holiday, very good at buying presents and exceptional at receiving them.

Quirky, somebody once called my mother. What a colossally condescending word: I hate it. It means you’ve decided that you don’t have to take that person seriously.

My mother’s last illness was a brain aneurysm.

The dead have no privacy left, is what I’ve decided.

The adrenaline of a busy week back in the States – meeting up with family members, writing and delivering a eulogy, packing up most of her belongings, writing thank-you notes, starting on paperwork (“sadmin”) – has long worn off and I’m back into my routines of work and volunteering and trying to make our house habitable as winter sets in. It would be easy to feel as if that middle-of-the-night phone call in late October, and everything that followed, was merely a vivid, horribly extended dream and that tomorrow she’ll pop back up in my inbox with some everyday gossip.

Reminders of her are everywhere if I look. Clothes she gave me, or I inherited from her, or she sent me the money to buy; a box of extra-strong Earl Grey teabags, left over from what we handed out along with memorial cards at the visitation; her well-worn Bible and delicate gold watch; the five boxes of journals in my sister’s basement – 150 volumes each carefully labelled with a number and date range. I have the first few and the last, incomplete one here with me now. What a trove of family stories, precious or painful, await me when I’m strong enough to read them.

With Thanksgiving coming up tomorrow – a whole holiday devoted to gratitude! nothing could more perfectly suit my mother – I’m grateful for all of those mementoes, and for the books that are getting me through. Starting with this one. [192 pages] (Read via Edelweiss)

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20 responses

  1. Oh, I’m so sorry to hear this Rebecca. Sending lots of love to you and your family. McCracken’s book sounds amazing x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Laura. I’ve not been very vocal about it, just one tiny thing about how I might not be able to keep up with Novellas in November. But I find that my appetite for books has remained unchanged.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve just reserved this at the library – it’s still on order by them. It’s clear to see why this book has been such an appropriate one for you just now. I hope that gradually going through that ‘archive’ your family seems to have will bring solace, as well as the inevitable pain.

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    1. Not out in the UK until January, so that explains it. My sister isn’t looking forward to the unflattering things that might be in the journals! But it was an understanding I had with my mom, that I would take possession of them. What I’ll do with it all, I’m not sure.

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      1. Intersticio times ….

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  3. I thought of you when I saw this in the publishing schedules, Rebecca. I’m glad it brought some comfort. Sending lots of love xx

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    1. It never even occurred to me to check for a UK release. I nabbed the U.S. edition from Edelweiss when it came out there in October. Her nonfiction has tended to work a lot better for me than her fiction, though I did love the one short story collection of hers that I tried, Thunderstruck.

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  4. Oh mate. Sending so much love. xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m okay, really 🙂 I thought of you after that UVA shooting. It must have been scary for your family.

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      1. Thank you so much. Yes – quite horrible. They were at home at the time, nowhere near campus, but it’s such a terrible thing to have happen in a community that already has some pretty traumatic violence in its recent history.

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  5. […] The Hero of this Book by Elizabeth McCracken – Rebecca at Bookish Beck […]

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  6. What a lovely tribute to your mother. I’m glad this book found you at the perfect time. Take care.

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    1. Thank you, Julé. Isn’t it amazing how books can meet us when we need them?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “Opinionated, outspoken, optimistic; set in her ways. Delightful and maddening in equal measure – like all of us.”
    That describes our own Mom to a T. She was uniquely Carolyn, and I miss her so much. Especially today.
    Trish

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  8. That was the perfect time for that book, wasn’t it? I transcribed an interview with her a few weeks ago which was very interesting. Lots of love to you as you negotiate these new times and ways.

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    1. Oh, lovely, she seems like such a sweet person.

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  9. This was a beautiful tribute. I’m glad you have books to bring you some comfort. And your mom’s journals! What a gift.

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    1. She kept a daily journal for nearly 33 years! I just started reading the first one last night and it is so funny to see glimpses of six-year-old me (and even what I was reading at the time).

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      1. Daily! Wow! I’m not nearly as disciplined with mine.

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  10. […] 24. All things considered, I think that’s a great showing. The 5-star stand-outs for me were The Hero of This Book and Body Kintsugi, but Up at the Villa was also a great […]

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