Bowlaway is McCracken’s third novel, alongside two collections of short stories and a memoir. Her delightful voice and poetic facility have been present since her debut novel, The Giant’s House (1996), a small story, delicately and intimately told. Here the framework is far more ambitious. If The Giant’s House were a petit four, Bowlaway would be a towering, hearty, multi-tiered cake, dazzling and confident in its construction.
With its whimsy and wackiness, this is a funhouse of a novel. Even the most incidental of characters are granted glorious vignettes: a man, for instance, discovered handcuffed to a showerhead and wearing a woman’s girdle announces himself to be Professor Hackert, of Calculus. Professor Hackert, we are told, ‘like most people, could not quite sort out humiliation from pride’. Prospective lovers begin their courtship with mutual phrenological examinations; a memorial figure is constructed out of old candlepins. Someone spontaneously combusts; a ghostbuster arrives in town... ‘Roll the ball and wait and see,’ Roy Truitt says as he coaches Betty Cracker Graham; ‘you think the ball’s gone, but then it hits the wall and comes back and maybe you have a strike. Nothing is for sure.’ And so it is in the unpredictable and startling world of Bowlaway.
McCracken is a firecracker stylist and every sentence, every image, is crafted for physical impact — pink blossom hangs from trees like lungs, a man’s tie licks the floor like a tongue. She lines up a colourful cast of contortionists, show girls and ghost hunters, then knocks them down with spontaneous combustion, molasses floods or slabs of stone. However, all the jaunty eccentricity and whimsy can feel tiresome, and in fact the quieter, more ordinary moments are generally more powerful....Bowlaway though, is not supposed to be a quiet book. It is exuberant, a bit bonkers and raw and unflinching. It will find a great many fans — and no doubt some awards, too. If you enjoy quirks and eccentricities, cranks and loons, you’ll probably love it.