Great House by Nicole Krauss
23 April, 2011
I’m the first to admit that I didn’t particularly fall in love with Nicole Krauss’ A History of Love, a book that many will cite as their favourite. I read it, I liked it, but did I love it? Not really. It was alright. And I wasn’t really bothered about her new book, Great House, although I was planning to read it at some point. That is, until I found out it featured a writer’s desk with 19 drawers. What is it about writers and writing and their paraphernalia that perpetually draw readers to books about them? I’m one of those people who cannot resist such a book. And then I found out it was longlisted for the Orange Prize, of which I am a huge fan as is one of the judges Bettany Hughes, and then the reviews flooded in. A very mixed bag, which made it more interesting. I’m also one of those readers that would go out and get a copy of a book when I read negative reviews. Just to see for myself, you see. I don’t like people telling me what I should and shouldn’t like. Am I being contrary? I think not. Reading is truly subjective and even if you have similar tastes in books, there will come a point when you diverge, often inexplicably.
In Great House, Krauss explores the fragmented lives of a group of people, spread out over New York, London and Jerusalem all loosely connected by a desk said to have once belonged to Lorca and in the possession of a young Chilean poet in the 70s. He gives it to Nadia, an American novelist, who recalls her one night with him, his disappearance in Pinochet’s regime and the breakdown of her marriage to another man. Twenty five years later, a young girl claiming to be Varsky’s daughter Leah rings her doorbell asking for the desk.
The novel is fragmented, mirroring the lives of Krauss’ characters. The chapters switch from Nadia to Yoav and Leah, growing up privileged, following their autocratic father around the world as he searches for furniture stolen from the Jews during WWII while he tries to recover his dead father’s property. We have an inkling that the desk is relevant here.
Then Krauss switches again to Lotte Berg and her English husband, an academic at Cambridge, who live in Highgate. Berg is also a writer, silent with many secrets including a desk with 19 drawers. And one day in the 70s, she gives the desk away to a young Chilean poet. All the while, her husband, who loves her and tries to smother his jealousy towards the desk, her past, the Chilean poet young enough to be her son. He has always wondered about the desk, whether it was given to Lotte from a former lover.
And finally we meet Aaron, an Israeli lawyer with two sons, who has just lost his wife of 50 years. His eldest is ever solicitous but he has a complicated relationship with his youngest, ever since he was a child and who finally left their family after suffering trauma fighting in Israel’s Yom Kippur war of ’73. This story particularly touched me as I’m sure there are many families where communication has broken down between father and son. And Krauss explores why this happens from the point of view of a father who cannot understand his second son.
The four tales are mixed and entangled, slowly coming together at the end, although it’s never really complete. What Krauss is so good at doing is showing the complexity of relationships, especially one where there is a lot of love, but which can get twisted because of the need for privacy and space. What I came away with after finishing the book is that often, when you love someone, you want all of that person, and when that is thwarted, it poisons you. Or that maybe there is no such thing as a perfect love because people need their own space where there can be no intrusions.
Krauss’ reflections are slow and thoughtful and Great House is not a book to be rushed. You cannot read it fast because it has its own pace which you must follow. And this is probably one of the main gripes seeing the mixed reviews on the web, especially for those that could not finish the book. Yet, although it took me a couple of weeks to finish this book, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And for me, that is one sign that the book has sunk its claws into me. I really loved this book. Krauss somehow manages to peel open the layers within a person exposing the often difficult and complex moods that threaten to destroy close relationships and she does this beautifully. The struggles between lovers, couples and parents and children are shown here unvarnished and I felt she almost came close to the truth.
This isn’t a happy read. It’s about depression, loss of communication, hurting those closest to you, solitude. But I didn’t find it a depressing novel even though it could have been. And it’s also a novel about being Jewish and how history is ever present.
The only gripe I have is that there were some loose ends that were left untied. Lotte’s history remains a mystery. I’m not entirely sure who the desk ultimately belonged to. And the ending as well. It may not matter, but for someone who reads mysteries to find out the secret, it’ll probably bug me for a while until I concoct my own solutions.
I haven’t read any of the other Orange 2011 shortlisted novels, but I would be very happy if Great House won. In fact, it’s made me want to go back and re-read A History of Love again. Someday, once I’ve made a dent in my evergrowing TBR.
I would like to thank the lovely people at Penguin Books for kindly sending me a copy of Great House to review.