Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken
The Dial Press, 2014; 224 pp
Reviewed by Courtney Craggett
In the first story in her heartbreaking collection Thunderstruck, author Elizabeth McCracken writes, “Whatever you have lost there are more of, just not yours.” Although in this case she is talking about a grieving mother whose daughter has died, the observation could just as easily apply to any of the stories in the collection. The characters in these stories mourn. McCracken puts them in a world of tragedy and loss and asks them to cope with their grief in their own varied and human ways.
They all respond to loss differently:
For some, grief is subdued and yet ever-present. In “Property,” a recent widow mourns his wife, and McCracken writes, “And all day long, like a telegraph, he received the following message: My wife has died, my wife has died, my wife has died.” He must find a way to exist with this constant reminder.
Some characters are cynical, expecting grief. For these, tragedy produces a combination of sadness and rage. In “The Lost and Found Department of Greater Boston” a cop sees how an abused boy has been living, and McCracken writes, “Later he’d be furious, but for the moment he only felt the deep sorrow that visited him whenever he got someplace later than he should have, when he saw how helpless the world was, eventually, to protect its children.”
Some characters create new realities. In the title story a father believes desperately that his brain-damaged daughter can paint, that she can have her own version of a beautiful life. His wife wishes their daughter had died the night she hit her head, but he persists in his belief that their daughter’s life is only changed now and not over.
Some respond in bizarre and extreme ways to grief. In “Something Amazing,” a mother reacts to the death of her daughter first by withdrawing from the world and ordering her son to seal up her daughter’s old bedroom, and then by kidnapping and bathing a neglected neighbor child.
Some only invent their grief in order to explain a loneliness that was already there. Some try to make sense of it. Some simply exist with it. Each of them must face it, though. There is no escape for these characters. They must keep on living, despite the cruelty of a world that will steal and cripple and kill indiscriminately.
Read one after the other, these stories are heavy. McCracken does not spare her readers the sorrow her characters experience. There is redemption here, though. Each character learns to reach out through his or her grief and interact with the world. The husband in “Property” learns to recognize the sadness his landlord lives with. The cop in “The Lost and Found Department of Greater Boston” rescues the boy and sees him to adulthood. The father in “Thunderstruck” tries to help his wife see their daughter’s gift. Even the withdrawn mother in “Something Amazing” reaches out to the little neighbor boy, and the two give each other a moment of tenderness and trust that both desperately need.
This is what makes the collection so exceptional. Yes, McCracken captures loss and grief perfectly. The losses that so many experience – death, separation, declining health – are reflected here with just enough absurdity and humor to give them distance and make them bearable, and there is a relief that comes from seeing such common experiences and emotions displayed so exactly. What is more remarkable, though, is that McCracken does not stop with simply an accurate drawing of grief. She pushes her characters further, forces them out of their isolation and makes them interact and reconnect with the world. And although it does not diminish their losses or heal them of grief, these interactions are what open them up to small and often beautiful redemptive moments.