It’s a rare story collection that starts strong and ends up even stronger. In her new book, “Thunderstruck and Other Stories,” award-winning novelist Elizabeth McCracken achieves this result through a combination of nonchalance, empathy and sheer intelligence.

If there’s a common denominator among the nine pieces here, it’s the theme of loss. Yet even the darkest subjects – disappearances, murder, illness, accidents – can’t escape the leavening effects of McCracken’s quirky eye and droll wit.

She demonstrates that simple dailiness can be its own balm, cutting through the din of tragedy.

Nor is McCracken a drama queen, milking scenes for histrionic effect. Rather, she punctures the ambient drama with a matter-of-factness that continues to surprise. “The grandmother was a bright, cellophane-wrapped, hard candy of a person: sweet, but not necessarily what a child wanted,” she writes in one story’s opening.

In another, she offers this foreshadowing statement, right out of a mystery playbook: “Look here: Karen Blackbird is standing on the front porch before she disappears.”

Throughout this volume, McCracken arranges the mood and atmosphere, as if she were writing a literary thriller. At times, perhaps she is.


In the story, “Property,” a recent widower moves into a tattered Maine rental, misreading both the decor and a series of exchanges with his landlady. This story, about the variability of grief, conveys how couples become one another’s lens on the world.

His deceased wife, Pamela, “was the one who taught him that a bed on display is never just furniture, it is a spirit portrait of everyone who has ever slept in it,” McCracken writes. “Look, she said. You can see them if you look.”

In a sense, many of these stories are about absence – about what we lose when someone leaves. McCracken’s characters go about their lives with missing parts, which gather their own presence. If this is one definition of ghosts, it seems fitting that the author has introduced a ghost or two into the proceedings – essences of people, transformed.

In the book’s most eccentric piece, “Some Terpsichore,” the author chronicles a needy, twisted romance between a woman whose singing sounds like a musical saw – “it was the voice of a beautiful toothache” – and a buffoon, who actually plays the saw. Their pairing is part circus act, part sadness, a vaudevillian premise that oddly works.

In this intense, well-balanced collection, one story stands out for its novelistic breadth. The title story, “Thunderstruck,” grapples with the escapades of an unruly 12-year-old, and a family trip to Paris that’s planned as an intervention. What follows, of course, is far more tangled, revealing the fault lines in the family’s complicated topography.

By story’s end, McCracken has written an elegy about a family in crisis, at once wishful, anguished and redemptive.

There’s no dearth of fine authors who have taken to writing short stories of late. Few, however, possess McCracken’s full palette of hues, tones and shadows. This is three-dimensional writing at its most vivid.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.