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The Giant’s House
Elizabeth McCracken

The Giant’s House
Elizabeth McCracken
Jonathan Cape
London 1996

London 1997

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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


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