The big man and the librarian

THE GIANT'S HOUSE by Elizabeth McCracken, Cape pounds 9.99
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Inever noticed how many librarians there were in Elizabeth McCracken's luminous short story collection Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry? but they were there. Other, more exotic creatures clung in the memory: the tattooist's widow who had a "love letter" written on her body; the baffled father who abandoned his young children to a crowd of lodgers; the 50- something man "of many small mistakes" who waited, patient and embarrassed, for his wife to wake from a coma.

Where did such tales come from? Almost every paragraph contained a joke, yet the whole was terrible and sad. The characters were unconventional enough to be interesting, but (thankfully) never cute or whacky. They seduced and beckoned and then, brutally confined by their medium, promptly wound themselves up. The jacket promised - as jackets do - that their author was "working on a novel". I've been waiting and hoping. And at last, in The Giant's House, McCracken (now admitting she was until recently a full-time librarian) has spread her wings.

It's 1950 and full-time librarian Peggy Cort - "less a woman than a piece of civic furniture" - finds meaning in her life when she meets James Sweatt who, thanks to a pituitary problem, measures six foot two at the age of eleven: "His growth was like weather, some years worse than others: he grew six inches between his thirteenth and fourteenth birthdays, and Brewsterville lost power four times in thunderstorms." And as James grows up - in both senses - the emotional possibilities of Peggy's small, dour life swell proportionately.

Clinging to the soothing order of the library, Peggy believes happiness to be an idea well above her station. Her metier, her sole pleasure is in finding books for people. But, befriended by Jame's family - his wan, tragic, soon-to-be-dead mother and his likeable, bemused aunt - Peggy consciously welds her life to James's. Freakish, increasingly famous and uncomfortable and tragic, dealing with a towering, seven-foot puberty, he can no longer fit easily into a car, his feet grow festering sores because he has so little sensation in them and he doesn't venture out much for fear of falling. Doctors say he won't live long.

Undeterred, Peggy makes it her job to ease his passage through a tiny, uncompromising world. She builds him an outsize house, drives and chaperones him patiently while women, fascinated and heartless, flirt and desert him.

A meticulous, comforting friend but an infuriating narrator, Peggy catalogues her feelings like a card index, her inner spontaneity leeched by her striving for order and logic. And as you're beginning to think this might be just a flawless cul-de-sac, an over-extended short story where nothing happens, McCracken reveals that it has all happened anyway. Here you are in the clotting thickness of a love story and, just like life, it has crept up soberly and quietly. And all James wants to know before he dies is how a woman looks at the moment before she kisses you.

So, do the giant and the librarian get to do it? Suffice to say that McCracken manages perhaps not the most erotic but, to my mind, the most literal and plausible definition of sexual purpose that you might ever read.

McCracken has delivered a novel of fierce and awesome calibrations. Sex usually fits people together. On the face of it, this is a story about people who should but can't fit, but ultimately it's also about the petulant and confining proportions of the not-so-wide world itself. Wanting things proves we are alive. Peggy wants and, finally, regardless of outcome, it's the wanting that transforms her life.