Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 240 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck & Other Stories was long listed for this year’s Folio Prize, which is how I came to read it. Say what you want about prizes, or the sheer proliferation of them, but they do bring books to my attention that might otherwise pass me by.
There are nine stories in this collection and while it’s hard to pinpoint a unifying thread between them all, I’d say it’s probably loss: these are largely tales about people who suffer some kind of trauma — there’s quite a lot of death and grief here — or go missing.
I read the book on my tube journey into work — one story a day — and thought it was a fairly uneven collection. Ask me to summarise each of the nine and I’d be hard pressed to do so: but three definitely stand out.
A trio of highlights
In Property, a 39-year-old scholar, Stony Badower, accepts a two-year job in Maine cataloguing a collection of 1960s underground publications. It was supposed to be a happy return to America after having lived abroad with his German wife, Pamela, for three years. But shortly before the couple are due to move in to the rental house, Pam dies. Stony proceeds as planned — only to find the house isn’t quite the charming studio the ad on the website made it out to be.
The landlords had filled the house with all their belongings and said, ‘This will be fine for other people’.
But when Stony complains about the state of the place and later cleans it up himself, throwing away broken furniture and old condiments left in the kitchen, he unwittingly upsets the (somewhat kooky) landlady, who feels violated by the changes he’s made.
In The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs, an expat living in France, has a soft spot for unwanted animals. The 11-bedroom house he and his wife share is overrun with all kinds of pets, including an entire room devoted to budgerigars — but their relatively peaceful, if impoverished existence, is shattered when a man gives them an African grey parrot and demands 50 euro for it. But that seems to be the least of their concerns: their alcoholic son is planning to sell the house out from under them.
But the stand out story of the collection is the title story. In Thunderstruck, two well-meaning parents go to Paris on an extended summer break, taking their two young daughters with them. The couple are worried that 12-year-old Helen is being led astray by her peers, so the trip is designed to “disrupt their lives” and give a “jolt to Helen’s system before school started again in the fall”. Initially, things go well — “In Paris, Helen became a child again” — but then tragedy strikes and their lives will never be the same again:
The day of Helen’s accident — or perhaps the day before; they would never know exactly when the accident happened — she was as lovely and as childish as ever. In the make-up section of the Monoprix, she lipsticked a mouth on the edge of her hand, the lower lip on her thumb and the upper on her index finger. “Bonjour,” she said to her mother, through the hand.
Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances
In all of these stories, McCracken’s emphasis is on observation and character, rather than plot. She’s very good at capturing what makes humans tick and of revealing the ways in which people deal with loss, bereavement, loneliness, disappointment and despair. But her prose is so dry and distant, I struggled to emotionally connect with many of the tales, save for the title story, which is beautiful and brave in its depiction of a mother and father realising that happiness is fragile and fleeting.
Overall, Thunderstruck & Other Stories is a bit of a mixed bag. In these occasionally alarming, often maudlin and always haunting stories — many of which have been published elsewhere, such as Granta and Zoetrope: All Story — ordinary people are forced to deal with extraordinary circumstances, but the outcomes are far from predictable.