Tall boy's story

Carol Birch applauds an enriching tale of true love; The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken, Cape, pounds 9.99

Elizabeth McCracken's debut novel is a small masterpiece, profound, subtle and harmonious. It presents the memoir of Peggy Cort, small town librarian of Brewsterville, Cape Cod: a cynical, meticulous woman whose leisurely narration greets us with the words "I do not love mankind". In 1950, at the age of 25, Peggy's only passion is her work, the joy of which fills her with "fear and love and courage and endless wonder," making of a mundane job an art and vocation.

"A library," she says, "is a gorgeous language that you will never speak fluently." She acknowledges that she is odd, poignantly capturing the unplanned ways in which we stumble into our identities: "Every morning I walked along the gravel path from my house to the sidewalk, thinking, `Is this who I am? A lonely person?'"

Then into her library walks James Carlson Sweatt, eleven years old and over six feet tall. Until his death at the age of 20, eight and a half feet tall and still growing, Peggy loves James. She accompanies him through each stage of his life: the death of his mother; the teenage years when despite his popularity it becomes apparent that he will never get the girl; celebrity; the snapping cameras of tourists; the intrusions of the medical profession; even an appearance with Barnum and Bailey. Throughout, James remains an ordinary boy, a nice kid who reads a lot, teaches himself magic tricks out of books, embraces hobbies with youthful enthusiasm and dreams of travel and adventure. But James is a bolting plant, weakened by his great size.

The Giant's House has several dimensions. There is a fairy-tale motif, with a shoe that fits and an unimaginable lover. There is the straightforward chronicling of the practicalities of being different, the unaccustomed paean of praise to order and precision. But above all, this is a love story, one so unusual and delicately handled that it fits no tradition. It says far more about that overused word, love, than any dewy romance or torrid sex feast. "O girls," says Peggy, "what is said passionately evaporates, it's what's said as a matter of fact that is precious and damaging and lasting as a brand." McCracken's depiction of an unfashionable, faithful, selfless kind of love, at its most profound in the everyday, sticks in the mind and enriches. It is rare indeed in modern fiction.

This is good, hard, clear prose, precise and unpretentious, poetic when it needs to be but lacking the self-regarding bombast and meretricious courting of the special effect that mars much new writing. McCracken's work is refreshing and exhilarating, deeply moving but absolutely lacking in sentimentality, deserving of accolades at a time when certain adjectives - stunning, brilliant, remarkable - have become debased through overuse. When these words are routinely tossed around to describe the undistinguished or moderately good, how is the jaded reviewer to describe the real thing? Perhaps I should just say that it's been years since I've read anything as good as this novel.

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