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‘The Hero of This Book’ defies description. Just read it.

5 min

I loved Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel, “The Hero of This Book,” and would hate to deprive people of the chance to dive unknowingly into something wonderful. So feel free to stop here and pretend I am pressing the slim hardcover into your hands, saying: “Don’t look at the jacket copy. Just read.”

If you’re the sort who needs more information to commit, I will warn you that the book is hard to categorize. It doesn’t have a splashy hook, and it purposefully defies genre. Page by page, it’s the quiet story of an adult child mourning a parent. As a whole, it’s a map of how to love someone.

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Told partly as travelogue, partly through memories laden with family lore, “The Hero of This Book” begins with our narrator’s trip to London in the summer of 2019, 10 months after her mother’s death. While settling in at a hotel, she checks her email and finds the listing link for her childhood home in Massachusetts, which has just been emptied of her parents’ belongings — sold by an estate service — and put on the market. She doesn’t want to look. Sightseeing provides distraction and remembrance in unequal parts.

As it turns out, she treated her mother to a London trip in 2016. Now, wandering alone, the textures of the city churn up that time. Along the 2019 through-line, there are visits to Tate Modern and Tate Britain, a bad sandwich, a ferry ride and a play, but her thoughts spiral through the history of her mother, a strong intellectual with a magnetic sense of joy and wonder. Our narrator details the ebb and flow of chaos and clutter in her parents’ unkept house (“everything they touched turned to nickels”); the death of her father; and conversations, setbacks, successes, opinions and minutiae that can be collected only through the profound knowing of someone. These seamless yet dizzying jumps through time mirror the tailspin of bereavement, how our brains scramble to recall images of a loved one, how something as insignificant as a sandwich can trigger an avalanche of memory.

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With admirable candor, pragmatism and humor, McCracken gives us a confessional gift as she walks through the experience of processing loss. However, this book is not a memoir. Our fictional narrator (a writer with nearly identical credentials to McCracken’s) defines the terms of use early and frequently. Her mother hated memoirs, especially if the memoir was about a writer’s mother. “I believed,” the narrator shares, “the afterlife was, as an atheist might tell a child curious about heaven, the memories of other people. My mother would have hated that! To cede control to other people’s brains, when her own brain was what she trusted. Still, she loved being thought about.”

To solve the problem of memoir, McCracken introduces us to Trevor, a London hotel owner who turns out to be a cheeky device that grants her permission to write a nearly true story she can present as fiction. “Perhaps you fear writing a memoir, reasonably,” she writes. “Invent a single man and call your book a novel. The freedom one fictional man grants you is immeasurable.” Therefore, in honor of her mother, and thanks to Trevor, “The Hero of This Book” is a novel.

Later, in tiny increments that feel like admissions we’ve earned as worthy confidants, McCracken details how she differs from her narrator. The discrepancies are primarily the omissions of real people to protect their privacy.

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Perhaps in the micro-genre of bereavement chronicles infused with honesty about lying, there could be the slightest of nods to “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” by Dave Eggers. But that was a story of youth, premature parental loss, hyperbole and hopefulness. McCracken’s book is a grounded work of adulthood, of loss in its reasonable time and the reality of what we’re left with if granted the privilege to march through a life that unfolds in good cadence.

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There’s no huge family drama, but you won’t miss it. This mother is not one of the monsters of gut-wrenching memoirs from adult survivors. She’s a lovely woman, sometimes frustrating, but that frustration is hardly a headline; it’s simply an acknowledgment that everyone is at least a little frustrating.

She had cerebral palsy, used mobility aids and had a significant health event several years before she died, but those are facts, not plot points. Her story is not one of overcoming challenges (although she did) but of living fully. I believe this mother was smarter, kinder, more strong-willed, good-humored and delightful than most, but McCracken isn’t holding her up as an idol. Instead, taking advantage of the freedom that Trevor grants her, she presents a multifaceted woman who was both special and ordinary — loved for all of it — offering the unwritten acknowledgment that when we lose our own special and ordinary people, we are not alone in the experience.

Through “The Hero of This Book,” McCracken extends her mother’s heaven to our memories. I’ll be thinking about her with great affection for a very long time.

Allison Larkin is the author of four novels, most recently “The People We Keep.”

The Hero of This Book

By Elizabeth McCracken

Ecco. 192 pp. $26.99

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