"Once somebody is dead, the world reveals all the things they might have enjoyed if they weren't," Elizabeth McCracken writes in her funny, perceptive novel "The Hero of This Book."
McCracken chronicles a trip the unnamed narrator took to London in 2019, the year after her mother died. The narrator, who has much in common with McCracken, visits tourist attractions and walks around the city. The narrator is frequently joined by a second narrative presence, who McCracken calls "the author," who comments on the story. Both reminisce about her remarkable mother, who loved London, from its wheelchair-accessible black cabs to its abundant theater offerings.
As McCracken embarks on this story, she interrogates the narrator: "Perhaps you fear writing a memoir, reasonably." So, she advises, "Invent a single man and call your book a novel."
The narrator engages in this dance throughout the book, insisting, "I am not a memoirist" and that her mother would hate "my opinion about her experience." She squirms away from the story and yet is compelled to tell it.
McCracken's mother, Natalie, is such an original person and worthy subject that it's evident why her loss drove McCracken to convey her spirit in a book.
Natalie Jacobsen McCracken was born a twin in a Jewish family in Iowa, and walked with canes due to "a birth injury." She worked as an editor and was tiny, opinionated, black-haired and enthusiastic, with "weapons-grade self-confidence and self-determination."
McCracken's father, who died five years before her mother, made a striking counterpoint to Natalie, at 6 feet 3 and more than 300 pounds. McCracken insists that writers must convey characters' physicality to portray them accurately. "If you don't take your characters' bodies into account," she writes, "your work is in danger of being populated by sentient, anguished helium balloons."
Throughout the book, McCracken, who teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, shares observations about writing, yet she asserts that her wisdom, if assembled, could only fill a "pamphlet."
The narrator has an endearing way of insisting she knows nothing and then dropping one stellar insight after another. As she walks around London and thinks about the estate sale that emptied her parents' jam-packed house, and the prospective buyers who are trooping through it now, she accuses this book of having "not much of a plot."
But it actually follows a plot that the bereaved know well. Researchers have documented how grieving people often engage in searching behavior as their brains struggle to integrate loss. A mourning brain seems to ask: Where did my person go? Memories play in loops, and people can even hallucinate seeing their loved one. This doesn't happen to the narrator, but her mother appears as an overlay to every experience. She walks around seeking and feeling, and observes about writing, "Unlike some pursuits, if you hurt yourself, it's a sign that you're doing it right."
This compact, wise, heartfelt book is another sign that McCracken continues to do it right.
Jenny Shank's story collection "Mixed Company" won the Colorado Book Award and the George Garrett Fiction Prize and her novel "The Ringer" won the High Plains Book Award.
The Hero of This Book
By: Elizabeth McCracken.
Publisher: Ecco, 192 pages, $26.99.