Review: Elizabeth McCracken honors her mom in a sly way

“The Hero of This Book” by Elizabeth McCracken (Ecco)

Don’t be fooled by the fact that this slim new volume from Elizabeth McCracken has the words “a novel” on the cover. It’s a memoir. The reason it’s not referred to as such is clear from the dedication page — a handwritten note from McCracken to her mom in 1993 promising that she’ll never appear as a character in her work.

Semantics aside, “The Hero of This Book” is simple and lovely. McCracken’s easy prose is a joy to read, right off the bat. Here’s part of the opening paragraph: “This was the summer before the world stopped. We thought it was pretty bad, though in retrospect there was joy to be found… I’d gone to London, where a heat wave had bent train rails and shut down art exhibitions and turned the English into pink, panting mammals.” The narrator — she uses the first person and readers can interchange the word narrator and author if they like — is in London 10 months after her mother’s death to revisit places they loved together while reflecting on their relationship. “Once somebody is dead, the world reveals all the things they might have enjoyed if they weren’t,” writes McCracken.

From August 2019 the narrative jumps around to past moments which reveal the mother’s values and the bond she shared with her daughter. Cleaning out the kitchen in 2002, as the narrator prepares to introduce her future husband to her parents (“I was trying to make a house he could visit without being appalled”):

“I brandished the cheese. ‘Three years out of date!’ I said to my mother. …

’No,’ she explained. ‘I just bought that.’

‘1999!’ I said. ‘Look!’

‘Printer’s error,’ said my mother, who generally used her considerable powers of stubbornness for good.”

Beyond honoring a mother, McCracken does something else remarkable in these 177 pages. She writes about writing. Despite her narrator’s admonition early on — “Don’t trust a writer who gives out advice. Writers are suckers for pretty turns of phrase with only the ring of truth” — nuggets of advice pop up throughout like bubbles: “I don’t think writing is that hard, as long as you’re comfortable with failure on every single level.” Or: “Why do I write? To try to get human beings on a page without the use of vivisection or preservatives or a spiritualist’s props, to make them seem lively still.”

McCracken does that with this book, processing her own grief and honoring her mother’s life, even if the subject — her hero — would assuredly have scoffed at the idea.