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.

For a different reaction, have a look at Chinoiserie and Iris’ eloquent posts.

I would like to thank the lovely people at Penguin Books for kindly sending me a copy of Great House to review.

20 Responses to “Great House by Nicole Krauss”

  1. Violet Says:

    I finished this yesterday and loved it too. I love that Krauss has pushed the form of the “novel” and created this wonderful maze of a narrative. My post on my thoughts will be up tomorrow.

    • sakura Says:

      Hurray! I loved your post on this book. In some ways the structure of Great House reminded me a little of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (and Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, but not as meta).

  2. Bellezza Says:

    How lucky of you to receive this novel! I bought The History of Love long ago, but have not yet read it. Now I have two by Nicole to look forward to!

  3. Chinoiseries Says:

    Very insightful review! I believe you have caught the essence of the book. And I’m a little relieved that the loose ends were bugging you too 😉

    I was just going to add that Violet posted a review today 😉 Thank you for linking me! I’ll go and link up yours as well. I agree with the subjectivity in book tastes, oftentimes after reading a particular negative review, I still want to give the book in question a go. Great House is a well-written book, but just not the book for me.

    Now I want to try The History of Love! 🙂

    • sakura Says:

      I can see why there were so many mixed reviews of the book. Probably part of the reason why I liked it so much is what others may have objected too. But it’s certainly interesting to see the many different reactions. I felt Great House produced more questions at the end than it actually tried to answer. So it was intriguing:)

  4. amymckie Says:

    Glad to hear you liked this one more than I did 🙂 I’m kind of like you in that negative reviews make me want to read a book – but more so when there are mixed reviews. As long as someone liked it then I feel like I should try it!

    • sakura Says:

      It makes the book more interesting when there are mixed reviews because then it’s difficult to predict how you’ll find it. I’m trying to catch up on reviews of Great House as I was saving them until I finished:)

  5. Steph Says:

    “You cannot read it fast because it has its own pace which you must follow.”

    I think that perfectly describes this novel. I read it much faster than you, but in retrospect, I think I would have gotten more out of it if I had read it slowly and taken the time for it to weave itself into my subconscious. For me it didn’t have the emotional appeal that The History of Love did, but there was still so much to like about.

    • sakura Says:

      Now I’m so tempted to re-read The History of Love! Sometimes I’m just not in the right mood for a book and I miss out on what makes it so special. Does that ever happen to you?

  6. Nadia Says:

    Yay! So happy to find someone else who didn’t love A History of Love. Like you, I liked the book okay, but didn’t fall in love with it like everyone else in the book reading world seemed to. This of course is why I haven’t picked up Great House, but now that I’ve read your review I’m definitely adding it to my TBR list. Plus, one of the characters has my name 🙂

  7. I’m with you: I allowed the book to set the pace, immersed myself in its rich language and loved it (having a short reading slump post reading it as I had so thoroughly been attached to it). I really, really hope Nicole Krauss manages to the Orange shortlist readings so we can hear her speak about her work and provide insights into those loose ends and the inspiration behind the desk.

    • sakura Says:

      I hope she’s there too! Exciting:) I’m going to see if I can fit in one more Orange shortlist book before the event but we’ll see.

  8. Arti Says:

    This must be our ever popular postmodern structure… fragmented individuals and their seemingly unrelated lives which come together at the end. Not only in novels, but in films too. I’ve recently read and reviewed Let the Great World Spin, and it’s just like that (which btw, will be made into a movie.) But fortunately there’s a nice tied up at the end. As for Krauss’ books, I’ve ordered The History of Love online and last checked it has been shipped. I so look forward to it. And for Great House, I just found it on the current release shelf in our public library… for that I’m glad. Thanks for this post, now I have some idea of what to expect, better than being exposed to all sorts of unrelated, open threads, with no resolutions.

    Lastly, I totally agree with you about the subjectivity of readers’ response to a book, for we each bring along our own exp. and personality into our reading… but I better stop now, this comment is getting too long. 😉

    • sakura Says:

      I love long comments:) I’ll have to check out Let the Great World Spin which I’ve heard of but know nothing about. Maybe the fragmented structure of stories stems from our increasingly global lives as we all seem to travel more widely and have acquaintances scattered around. Interesting thought.

  9. Iris Says:

    I am so glad that you loved it. I’m afraid my post made me sound more negative about the book than I felt. Although I still love The History of Love better. I guess we differ on that. I really want to reread this sometime next year, to just.. cherish it again?

    • sakura Says:

      Haha, that happens sometimes to me too, when my posts don’t accurately reflect how I felt even though I spend ages refining it;P I’m really tempted to pick up The History of Love again just to re-assess my thoughts.

  10. Bought the book yesterday! I also noted that people hold different opinions on the book! 🙂 Should start reading it today! 😀

    • sakura Says:

      I find it interesting when there are divided opinions of books – makes me wonder what I’ll find:) I hope you enjoy it!

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