Small-town librarians in 50s America is almost a cliché,
and frustrated, order-obsessed, spinster librarians could give
the impression of authorial bankruptcy – been there, done that
too many times to make it worth a punt. It is a tribute to Elizabeth
McCracken’s clear talent, if lack of originality, that The
Giant’s House manages to puff life into the ubiquitous
spinster for at least one more novel.
Peggy is an oddity, an outsider. Her social skills are non-existent,
her need to impose rationality stunts her emotional responses.
No wonder then that she becomes first friends, then falls in love
with the town’s more visible oddball, the overly tall James Carlson
Sweatt. James is six five at the age of twelve and grows to over
eight feet by his late teens. Their strange, lop-sided romance
develops alongside his physical growth, equally bizarre and ultimately
physically unsustainable coupling that puzzles the two protagonists
almost more than those observing it.
McCracken uses these two to explore ideas about intimacy and distance,
about what is a freak – is it inside or out – and handles even
the most grotesque of characters and situations with a kindness
that is rarely woolly. McCracken is clearly a diligent graduate
of the celebrated Iowa Workshop where it is hard not to be impressed
by the consistency of quality work that comes out of it. However
this can also be a drag. The contemporary American novel has a
voice that can muffle the less adventurous writer. Not so much
write by numbers, but perhaps a case of lots of talent, not enough
life lived. Small ideas beautifully expounded by the technically
gifted are fine, but not enough, and there is more than a hint
of this in the book. But to be fair to McCracken, The Giant’s House
is very beautifully written and quite haunting in
places. Definitely a quirky one from a writer to watch.
Reviewed by Sara Rance