Stranger things have happened

This is my review of Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken.

My four stars are for the best stories in what struck me as a "mixed bag" much as I wanted to admire the quality of the writing and risk-taking originality.

McCracken reminds me of Alice Munro: the unusual take on situations, the continual drift to unpredictable outcomes, the concern with observation rather than plot, the sharp, self-possessed prose stripped of emotion even in the most moving situations, the flashes of humour to alleviate the pain or even horror. However, I find her writing a little more contrived and less empathetic than Munro's.

The stories seem very variable in their effectiveness. I was hooked by the opening "Something Amazing" in which teenage Gerry comes home to find that his grief-deranged mother, unable to get over the death of her small daughter, has kidnapped a neighbour's child. "He wonders how to sneak him back home. He wonders how to keep him forever".

The plight of a couple trying to deal with an accident which has befallen their wayward adolescent daughter in the title story "Thunderstruck" comes closer to moving than most of the rest. Sustained by false optimism, the father "looked at his wife, whom he loved, and whom he looked forward to convincing, and felt as though he were diving headfirst into happiness. It was a circus act, a perilous one. Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip".

"Peter Elroy; A Documentary by Ian Casey" is very original, showing how a longstanding friendship has been destroyed by film-maker Ian's early masterpiece in which he interviewed Peter, but only recorded his responses, thereby both deceiving him and showing him in a dreadful light.

McCracken is good at portraying earnest young children, and some of her quirky descriptions have a childlike quality: "A lawnmower skulks up to its alligatorish eyebrows in the yard". A family anxious to comfort a daughter "bundled" her up "in their eight bare arms, the devoted family octopus". I also enjoyed her revealing but oblique Pinteresque dialogues.

Although some stories improved on a second reading, perhaps I was getting used to her style, about half like "Property","The Lost and Found Department of Greater Boston", "Juliet" or "Some Terpsichore" failed to engage me. Although the technical quality is high, and she is often original and very imaginative in both her descriptions and ideas, many of her characters seem unconvincing. At times, situations slip into unrelieved black farce which tends to distance the reader: you may be intrigued and fascinated by the writing, but you do not care enough about the characters and need to take a break at the end of each piece to escape the bleakness.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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