It’s been more than 17 years since Elizabeth McCracken — Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum and acclaimed writer of fiction long and short as well as a beautiful, heart-rending memoir — published a novel. Her new book, “Bowlaway,” will delight readers of her previous novels, “The Giant’s House” and “Niagara Falls All Over Again,” as well as those discovering her prowess as a novelist for the first time or after reading her award-winning 2014 short story collection, “Thunderstruck.”
“Bowlaway” begins with the mysterious arrival of Bertha Truitt in Salford, Massachusetts, in the early 20th century. With her past shrouded in mystery, Truitt opens — and then rules over — a candlepin bowling alley. She also marries Leviticus Sprague, and her mixed race marriage (and mixed race child), further set her apart from her adopted community. The novel introduces us to several generations of characters, many of whom are haunted — knowingly or unwittingly — by their memories of or connections to Bertha Truitt.
McCracken has always been a master of bringing quirky characters to life — and “Bowlaway” is chock full of peculiar personages. Among them is Margaret Vanetten, who longs to be the mother of Bertha’s daughter, Minna, rather than just her nanny. In an exceptional, subtle passage, McCracken uses a visit to an art gallery to explore mother and child relationships. Here Minna reflects on art — and on her relationship with Margaret:
“Certain paintings made Minna feel loved. Needed. This painting, for instance, required her above all other people to look at it. Sculptures were haughty; landscapes were tureens of soup, nice enough, sustaining for a while, but too democratic in their purpose. But the right painting — the Mother and Child by the Master of Nervi, for instance — was like music, a kind of flattering invited intimacy. She knew she couldn’t explain this to Margaret Vanetten, who always seemed to be examining her for highfalutin notions which, left unremarked upon, might develop into delusions, or suffrage. Margaret did not want to strive to understand the world. She wanted the world to simplify, so that she might understand it.”
Many of McCracken’s gifts are on full display here. She deftly sketches her character’s emotional thoughts while offering up memorable images (“landscapes were tureens of soup”) and humorous, pointed asides (“might develop into delusions, or suffrage”) and finishing with a sweeping, yet deeply personal analysis of another character (“She wanted the world to simplify ...”).
All of which is to say, McCracken, as is her wont, has written a masterfully crafted, moving novel filled with memorable characters for whom she feels great empathy — empathy she inspires in her readers as well. Readers, undoubtedly, will be bowled over by “Bowlaway.”
• What: Elizabeth McCracken will read from her new novel, “Bowlaway”
• When: 7 p.m. Feb. 7
• Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
• Cost: Free