Connected solely by a desk of enormous dimension and many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or give it away, three people--a lonely American novelist clinging to the memory of a poet who has mysteriously vanished in Chile, an old man in Israel facing the imminent death of his wife of 51 years, and an esteemed antiques dealer tracking down the things stolen from his father by the Nazis--struggle to create a meaningful permanence in the face of inevitable loss.
Great House isn't about a house per se. Rather, it's the story of people with a deep and tormented history - who individually represent a sliver of their collective past, but together, form a congruous whole. In this story, a desk is the connecting theme - an assuming piece of furniture that began in the office of a Jewish man in Budapest and made its way around the world, touching and affecting the lives of many people.
In this story, we meet a writer who lives in New York, an antiques dealer and his family from Jerusalem, a retired prosecutor and his son from Israel and a British couple. With one exception, the desk spends time with each person - often carrying good luck but painful memories too. As the story progressed, you follow the journey of the desk and the people who sat at it. In time, you see the other connections between each one.
Nicole Krauss is a gifted storyteller who is not afraid to take her readers on a journey that can be complicated and arduous. Indeed, Great House is not the easiest book to read with its swirling storylines and flowery language. It requires concentration as you learn about these characters whose lives are separate but connected. Each story could stand alone, but when placed together, they evoke a deeper meaning.
Great House will probably be revered by fans of literary fiction. It would make a compelling book for discussion, especially if led by the right moderator. In the end, I am glad I took the time to read this book - and sure that I will be thinking about this story for a long time.
Novels that take a bit of work such as this one often have me complaining. This book, however, did not leave me time to do so as I was completely captivated page after page. Having lived in Israel in the 1970’s, I knew the Jerusalem of that time. I also was well aware of the concurrent turbulence in Chile and the protests of young Jewish South Americans. I could have jumped into this book and befriended its characters. I also know what it feels like to be older and look back at that time. You could say I lived this story. The only thing that was missing is that, while living in Israel, I did not have that wonderful desk!
There is one part of the story that had me laughing out loud (although there is no humor per se in the story). I was listening to an audio version of this novel, and found that there were a few lines in Hebrew. The lines were supposed to have been said in a European-accented Hebrew. The accent was *distinctly* American! I had to replay those lines a few times just for the laughs.
I’m thoroughly glad that the author was rewarded with an Orange Prize nomination, a well-deserved kudo for this wonderful book. For sure, I’ll be greatly anticipating future novels by this talented writer.
Great House is an exploration of the Jewish Diaspora. There are several story-threads, each of which is loosely connected. The characters are finely drawn examinations of isolation, exile, and grief; each character’s story is told as a sort of a self-contained confessional. I couldn’t help but think: this is a story for introverts about introverts. You notice as you read this book, that many of Krauss’s characters are writers: poets, novelists, historians, or writer-wannabes. The mental footwork of understanding the places where the individual story-threads and characters connect is left largely to the reader with a maze of “bread crumbs” scattered throughout the narratives. This is what is both most satisfying and challenging about reading Great House. Each page is chock full of meaningful fragments; enough hints and illuminations scatter throughout the book that an entire picture emerges.
I was just as baffled (though also intrigued and enchanted) as many other readers seemed to be with the complexities found in Great House. One thing I’m sure of: Krauss has written a book that she does not intend to be simply read. She has no intention of spoon-feeding her reader. What she has crafted here, is a story whose ideas need to be chewed and gnawed on and digested. Great House is a book that should be read carefully and meditatively, studied and pondered. It should probably be read more than once.
However, in spite of Krauss’s masterful prose and puzzle-like storyline, her devices might not be enough to sustain this story as an enduring literary work. For about a day after I finished Great House, I thought about it a lot. Krauss’s prose is beautiful and immensely quotable. I enjoyed that so many of her characters were introverts; as one myself, I experienced a lovely sense of being understood as a person. I thought she did an interesting, though limited, job exploring the complexities of intimate relationships; loss and grief. I spent time thinking about how all the plots and characters fit together. Now, a week out, I’m not sure what’s left. When it comes right down to it, not much of the story really sunk below the surface; I don’t think it’s a book that will stick with me for the long term.
What do these four plotlines, which represent the narrative force that underscores ‘Great House’, have in common? The desk, for one thing; it is both a physical presence that connects all of the stories—although one only tangentially—as well as a metaphor for the constant sense of loss that pervades the novel. They also feature protagonists who suffer life-long isolation—often self-imposed—from even the most basic forms of human kindness and spend a considerable amount of time trying to reconstruct memories of their past. (In fact, the “great house” of the title refers to Old Testament admonishment to rebuild the lost Temple of Jerusalem from the collective memory of the Jewish people.)
I found this to be a very hard book to review, if for no other reason than it was not an altogether enjoyable book to read. Unlike her earlier novel ‘The History of Love’, in which Krauss covers very similar themes but with occasional touches of humor and joy, this work is wholly devoid of anything that might relieve the unrelenting emotional pain her characters experience. Further, while each story differs in its details, they share a soul-crushing melancholy that becomes a little monotonous by the end. Still, Kraus is a remarkably talented writer and this is a book full of compelling and hauntingly beautiful images that deliver a powerful final message. While reading this one was hardly a feel-good experience, it is also one that I suspect will stay with me for quite awhile.
It's hard to explain the plot of this book in just a few sentences. There is a collection of characters: a writer who lives a reclusive life, a father who was too hard on his son, a student who falls in love with the son of an antique's dealer, and more. They're all connected by a desk, an old piece of furniture that looms in their lives.
I can't deny Nicole Krauss has a way with words. She pulls me into the minds of her characters. She speaks about the human state with such effortlessness and brings all the sorrow and joy and mystery and loneliness and community of life into her pages.
That said, I guess I'm a stickler for tradition. This novel reads more like memoirs from four different people who happen to be connected by a desk. It's great writing, but I was left wondering, 'What's the common thread? What binds all of these people together?' Some of them love the desk, some of them hate it, some don't even know it exists.
I loved the characters and their stories, but I'm okay with the fact that I don't read novels like this often. I feel like they're stories I can only take every now and then because if I read novels like this consistently, I'd probably get bored or, worse, I'd start talking in sweeping generalizations that don't really make sense but sound pretty anyway, and my writing would start getting really long-winded, like this sentence, and all my paragraphs would be a page or more long.
Regardless, this book comes recommended from yours truly, if you have the patience for it. This is the kind of book that's a special treat, a gem, even, but I'm still glad it's not the norm for novels today.
The dust jacket says that the stories in this book are told by narrators who all have a connection with the same hulking desk. When I read that I imagined a work similar to People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, but the desk here doesn't take the central role that the Haggadah does in that one. Instead the desk is almost a side note, or maybe a subtle, oboe counter line, to the intimate melody that each of the narrators plays as they tell their stories.
The writing is beautiful--similes and metaphors par excellence, but after awhile all the narrators start to sound alike, none has their own voice, and it seems to be more about the writing than about the stories.
I found several reading group guides with lists of questions--very few of which I could answer--and I think that that is what the author was after, a story with no real ending, no neat lines, a story that you can fill in the details as you will,. I don't have time for that. So why do I keep trying to figure out the answers?
The book opens ominously. In a section called "All Rise", a woman is addressing "your honor" and describing her past relationships, how she came in possession of a large desk, and what happened to the previous owner of the desk. But on the second page is a paragraph set off from the rest:
She washed the blood from my hands and gave me a fresh T-shirt, maybe even her own. She thought I was your girlfriend or even your wife. No one has come for you yet. I won't leave your side. Talk to him.
Obviously something has happened, but the reader is given no other hints.
In the second section, titled "True Kindness", an angry father has an ongoing internal monologue about his relationship with his second son, someone he has never understood, and who has suddenly reappeared in his life.
The third section, "Swimming Holes", is conversational, again from the first person perspective, this time the voice of a retired professor, whose wife is a reclusive writer. He talks of his inability to break past her reserve, despite their long and loving marriage, and how, by protecting her privacy, he may have been deceiving himself.
The last section in the first half is "Lies Told by Children", and is told from the perspective of an outsider: a woman who has fallen in love with a man who lives with his sister in a big house and is completely cowed by his domineering father.
Each of these stories is revisited in the second half, although not in the same order. By the end, the reader is allowed to see how the stories interconnect. But as I said, the plot was not the hook for me. I kept reading because of the language and the ideas about knowing oneself and others. The author is able to speak in the voices of different people very convincingly. But I finished the book several days ago, and I still don't know what to make of it, not even whether or not I liked it. The key to the book (which is in no way a spoiler) lies in the last few pages, when one of the characters refers to a Jewish story about the creation of the Talmud in a school referred to as the Great House
...after the phrase in Books of Kings: He burned the house of God, the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire.
Two thousand years have passed, my father used to tell me, and now every Jewish soul is built around the house that burned in that fire, so vast that we can, each one of us, only recall the tiniest fragment: a pattern on the wall, a knot in the wood of a door, a memory of how light fell across the floor. But if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one, the House would be built again, said Weisz, or rather a memory of the House so perfect that it would be, in essence, the original itself. Perhaps that is what they mean when they speak of the Messiah: a perfect assemblage of the infinite parts of the Jewish memory. In the next world, we will all dwell together in the memory of our memories. But that will not be for us, my father used to say. Not for you or me. We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door.
Or a desk.
With its winding, spinning narrative, Great House manages to pull you in, only to be pushed away with a firm hand later.
The Rest of It:
I have mixed feelings about Great House. The story centers around a desk as it travels from owner to owner. To some, the desk is just a mere vessel to write letters at. To others, it is a more important piece, vital to the creative writing process. This wooden desk is quite unique, in that it contains 19 drawers which allow the owner to secret away little bits of life. Large and imposing, this desk seems to loom over its owners when they are in possession of it, and remind them of their past lives when it’s gone.
Krauss weaves in and out of different narratives going back and forth in time. The structure of the novel is quite complex and takes some time to get used to. It took many passes at reading the novel for me to get a feel for her style. I find this to be the case with most Literary Fiction, but with Great House, the extra effort didn’t reward me in the way that I expected it would. The story fell flat and the some of the characters lacked depth.
The one storyline that I was very taken with, is the one where Lotte’s husband finds out that his wife has secrets. I was completely absorbed by that story, but with the weaving narrative, once you find yourself absorbed, you are then suddenly pushed back into a different narrative. This gave the novel a disjointed feeling. Not to say that the transitions weren’t smooth, they were, but it’s like watching a riveting TV show while your children are yapping incessantly at you. You simply want to go back to the story… not be pulled away from it and forced to look elsewhere.
After re-reading the last third of the novel three times, I did experience the sense of loss that I felt the author was trying to convey. The desk becomes a Jewish symbol of survival and serves as a reminder of love and loss. The last third of the book is very powerful and thought-provoking but the novel as a whole felt a bit jagged around the edges. I didn’t feel that the stories were fully explored and it left me with an empty, unfinished feeling.
I read this for the 2010 Indie Lit Awards and although I do have some issues with how it was pieced together, I appreciate the complexity of the novel itself.
Great House is told through four alternating stories that shift back and forth over the course of five decades and four continents. The closest thing to a fixed point between the stories is a large antique wooden desk which makes it way from person to person. The other backdrop is history: the Holocaust, Israel's wars, Pinochet's coup, although we don't see any of these events, we just hear about how they have affected characters and the large desk that runs through all of them.
The disappointment was twofold: (1) the different overlapping stories don't come together in a satisfying resolution, in retrospect it clearly wasn't the author's intention that they do, but it still made it all feel less coherent and (2) there was something hollow and empty about the characters, again appears to have been the author's intention, but greatly at odds with the life-filled characters in The History of Love.
At the center of Krauss' dreamy network of multi-generational yearning is an desk, a heavy and many-drawered behemoth that characters pursue, sometimes for a lifetime, striving for a piece of representational furniture that, for more than one of them, brings with it destruction, death.
We first hear of the desk in reference to a romantic and slightly mythical Chilean writer who falls fatally afoul of the Pinochet regime. Well, not exactly, chronologically, first according to my notes and arrows. But I'll leave it as a repeat exercise for future readers to uncoil this chain. It's a fun knot to untie. Also in the peripheral running for the desk is an obsessed Israeli antique furniture dealer (that he lost his parents and their belongings to Nazi horror is continually relevant). His reclusive and sexually-charged son and daughter--someone said "Nabokov" in reference to this book, and in these housebound, profligate, slightly incestual waifs it seems most evident--gain the obsession of (young) female literary person Izzy. Also in the mix is the slightly overlapping (older) female literary person Nadia and (yet older, and more interesting) female literary person Lotte Berg, her adorable (if typical) doddering old British husband; further afield, a wistful and senescing father, his successful but damaged aloof son: they don't touch the desk, but drawing indirect connections between them and its impact can be engrossing.
Kruass gives us this desk, and the direct implication that it is carries heavy meaning. She also gives us her shattered characters and their gaping souls. Though the vignettes of humanity-dense interactions between her characters are vivid and, on occasion, cathartic, we never know this desk well except for the dent it leaves. It goes as far as to make some of the characters outwardly, presciently nervous:
"This desk was something else entirely: an enormous, foreboding thing that bore down on the occupants of the room it inhabited, pretending to be inanimate but, like a Venus flytrap, ready to pounce on them and digest them via one of its many little terrible drawers."
Despite the human foibles the desk elicits, and the dark destruction it metaphorically wreaks, it is, still, furniture. We're given the literary instruction to envision it as laden with symbolism, as dense enough to serve as a point of orbit for the disparate experiences of her characters. Made of earthly, wooden stuff, though, it seems at times too blatant, too extant, too physical to carry out its existential task. The core of the novel carries with it an ethereal, spiritual sense of connection, grief, love that seems too light, fleeting and internal for something so blunt and, well, real, to carry.
An even bigger problem for me is that none of the narrators or other characters in this book is at all likeable. The least offensive is pitiable. All the narrators are incapable of real connection with anybody else. With two exceptions, they are virtally devoid of emotional attachment to another human being. One of the exceptions seems happily married, but he kvetches constantly about one son he never could "understand." The other one, the one he terms "normal," he doesn't seem to care much about. The other exception involves siblings who are in a virtually incestuous relationship with each other, but tied to an authoritarian, aloof father who seems barely human.
Ostensibly, the book is in that genre in which the history of an object forms the narrative framework. In this instance, it is a desk. We meet its various owners, which is the way this this genre organizes its plotlines. The problem is the desk is just a big desk. It has no magic to it, and except for its bulk seems to make no difference in anybody's life. Towards the end of the book, there is a paragraph by one narrator about how much the desk meant to her, but, since she never said anything about it after she returned it to its previous owner early in the novel, this paragraph doesn't ring true. Moreover, we never do find out how one of the desk owners got it in the first place. One of the narrators never even owned the desk, so why he's floating around this novel, I never figured out. When the ostensibly original owner of the desk finally gets it, he doesn't exhibit any joy or satisfaction in finally getting it. He just considers it an affirmation that he's a genius at getting what he's after. Since he is otherwise a loathsome human being, the reader is not likely to care about that. It was just something of his father's, a man we know nothing of except he was caught in the Holocaust and was a briliant scholar. Since his son never carried on his father's life work, getting the desk seems a poor memento of the father's life.
Oh, at the very end, we do find out why one narrator kept saying, "Your Honor." However, not only is it impossible that any judge in any court of law would have listened to this woman's overlong story of her failed life, the reason she's before the judge has nothing to do with the rest of the novel. It's an intrusive element apparently to add a little plot twist.
I recommend Krauss's The History of Love, but this? Well, it will help a rainy afternoon pass by.
First there is All Rise, where a lonely author tells the story of a huge desk she inherited from a Chilean poet. She's spent her whole life choosing a life of work over human connections and now she feels lost.
True Kindness delves into the delicate relationship between estranged parents and their kids. A father, newly widowed, can't understand his introverted, sensitive son and struggles to come to terms with their complicated past.
In Swimming Holes, we read of a husband who loves his wife, even though she keeps him at arm's length. He's an outsider who understands little of his wife's past and because of that we discover things with about her along with him.
The final section, Lies Told By Children introduces us to Isabel, who tells us of her lover Yoav and his sister Leah who live a strange, secluded life under the thumb of their controlling father.
All of the stories are loosely connected by a mammoth desk with many drawers and a past as complicated as its many owners'.
I didn't feel as investing in these character as I did with The History of Love and I don't think the story is as well-constructed. But in the end it didn't really matter. I loved it, because I love her writing. She manages to convey a mood or mental state in such a deeply poetic way that's intoxicating.
I can sink into Krauss' writing like a warm bath, it's all-encompassing. When I'm reading something by her I sometimes forget the plot for a minute and get carried away by the magic of her words. Almost every line makes me want to reach for a highlighter. I love dipping into each of the characters' lives and seeing the world through their eyes and I know I'm going to continue reading everything she writes.
'Our kiss was anticlimactic. It wasn't that the kiss was bad, but it was just a note of punctuation in our long conversation.'
'Sometimes politeness us all that stands between oneself and madness.'
As for the plot itself, it gradually unfolds, told in several seemingly different storylines which tie together loosely. Not until the very end does the reader fit it all together. In my case, I'm still trying to fit it all together & get my mind wrapped around the novel as a whole. I will recommend this book not only for the sheer beauty of the writing, but also because it begs for discussion and interpretation.
Then....after twenty-five years, the desk that she loved was being claimed by a relative of its original owner...she knew it would happen one day, but now that it has happened, she wasn't sure how she felt about it...not having the desk would cause a hole in her life. She couldn't even be there when the original owner's daughter came to pick up the desk, and physical as well as mental things began happening after the loss of her beloved desk.
After the desk was gone, she got on an airplane to Ben Gurion airport...then the book went to another story. This second story opened with a funeral in progress.
I thought it was going to be a great read since the desk plot sounded intriguing, and the cover caught my interest.
I really was lost reading this book... the beginning was good, but as the book continued, it was very puzzling, and the sections seemed detached from each other. I had no sense of what the author was saying....the narrator talked to a "your honor," and she referred to characters by letters...R and S.
I really didn't enjoy the book because of how each chapter really wasn't connected to the others....not a continuous flow throughout the book.
I do have to say, though, that Krauss is a fantastic author....very deep and descriptive. Krauss’s book was too over the top for me....I don't read fluff, but the book was very profound, complex, and to me disconnected. I enjoy a flowing story that fits together.
I have seen great reviews for the book, but I just couldn't connect or follow the plot.
Best of luck with the book...I am sure it will be a best seller, but I guess I missed the point...I tried but was not able to continue reading it. 2/5.
I read The History of Love back in 2006. That was the beginning of my crush on Nicole Krauss. After that, I back-tracked and read her almost-as-delightful debut novel, Man Walks into a Room. Suffice it to say, I’ve been looking forward to Great House for a long time. Truthfully, this latest novel is my least favorite of the three. You’ll note that I still awarded it five stars. I don’t think Nicole Krauss is capable of publishing a novel worth less than five stars. Her writing is gorgeous. And her insight into complex emotional lives is dazzling. It’s not that Great House isn’t, well, great, but it is challenging.
If you flip through the pages of the book, you’ll notice something right away. The text is dense. There is virtually no white space on the pages, just long, almost unbroken paragraphs that make up a series of monologues. Or perhaps “confessions” is the more accurate word. The novel is structured in two parts. Each of those parts is comprised of four lengthy monologues—with the exception of the novel’s powerful final pages.
The book opens with 50-something Nadia, a solitary novelist living in New York. She is explaining her life to someone she addresses as “Your Honor.” Next we are with Aaron, an elderly Israeli reflecting upon the death of his beloved wife and his strained relationship with his son, Dov. Next is Arthur Bender—British and proper, the insecure husband of Holocaust survivor Lotte Berg, a woman with secrets. And finally we hear from Izzy, the youngest and sexiest of the narrators. Izzy is recounting a very slightly surreal love affair. In the second portion of the book, we spend some time with each of them again.
There is much talk amongst readers about a desk being the object that connects these diverse characters through distance and time. That’s not actually true. There are connections of varying subtlety, and the desk is one part of what connects some, but not all, of these characters. As Lance Armstrong might say, “It’s not about the desk.” It’s not even about the connections, really. Or, at least, I don’t believe that’s the point.
I got to know these characters reading Great House. I learned what propelled them, who they loved, what made them hurt. Especially what made them hurt, because there’s a lot of pain and sorrow and regret in these pages. These narrators are not cute, not joyful, and often not even very likeable. Nadia describes herself as “a person who was always falling through the ice, who had the opposite effect on others, immediately making them raise their hackles, as if they sensed their shins might be kicked.” And just as I began to warm to Aaron, it became clear that he was something of a monster. These are confessions. They are at times difficult to read. You won’t always understand the actions of the characters, but you will believe them. And you will feel their pain and the power of their stories and the beauty of Nicole Krauss’s words.
The main connecting element is a writing desk. It is an enormous, unusual, asymmetrical desk with many drawers that seems to have power over those whose lives it enters. And while a large part of the momentum of the book is wrapped up in discovering how this desk connects all these people, (a couple of writers, a furniture dealer, a lawyer, and their families) for me even greater rewards were found in two other elements of the novel.
First, in Krauss' beautiful and natural language, and her particular knack for metaphor:
"Weisz stood in the tiled entryway in polished shoes holding a walking stick with a silver handle, the shoulders of his wool overcoat shiny with rain. He was a diminutive man, smaller and older than I'd imagined, scaled back in all dimensions as if occupying space at all were a compromise he'd accepted but refused to embrace."
"But my time [with the therapist] was up, and I was excused from the need to answer. At the door we shook hands, a gesture that always struck me as strangely out of place, as if, with all one's organs spread on the table and the allotted time in the operating room almost up, the surgeon were to wrap them each neatly in plastic wrap before putting them back and hurriedly sewing you up again."
Second, in the emotional lives of the characters. Each character had his or her own personal flaws and tragedies to deal with, and the weight of their own memories to bear. All throughout, and completely without warning, some facet of the character's emotional tragedy would mirror or resonate with one of my own. None of the people in the book is like me, and yet the fact that I can relate to all of them is a symptom of Krauss' masterful character development.
Great House is a beautiful book, and I recommend it highly.
To be haunted is to have things happen to you that are unexplainable – outside of the realm of the everyday world. If someone asked me what “Great House” was about – I don’t think I’d be able to give a straightforward plot synopsis. I was always just a bit lost, having characters and events hovering just outside my realm of understanding – feeling as if the truth was playing tricks on me and that if I just read a bit more carefully, I’d be able to bring things into view. Once I realized that I wouldn’t be able to do so, I let the thoughts and the characters drift through me, and stopped thinking about from whence they came or how they related to the others in the book.
“We search for patterns, you see, only to find where the patterns break. And it’s there, in that fissure, that we pitch our tents and wait.”
The characters are linked, in this novel, by a desk. At least that’s what I think. What I know is that they are linked by memories, of longing and regrets, of lives that ended too quickly and lives that weren’t lived the way one had expected.
“But I hardly noticed the conversation that swelled around me, so absorbed was I by the expression I’d glimpsed the moment before the girl had buried her face in her mother’s hair, which filled me with awe and also grief, and I knew then, Your Honor, that I would never be that to anyone, the one who in a single motion could rescue and bring peace.”
There is a deep layer of grief in this book. These characters live, true, but many of them seem like they are living in the shadows of what should, what might have been.
“Look at him, she used to say, a man like any other, coming home laden with groceries. And yet in his soul, all the dreams, the sadness and joy, love and regret, all the bitter loss of the people he passes on the street fight for a place in his words.”
Too, this is a book about words. About readers and writers, about the power of words written and spoken. About how lives are shaped by events experienced both firsthand and pulled from the page.
“I made a point of answering the question I received with some frequency from journalists, Do you think books can change people’s lives? (which really meant, Do you actually think anything you write could mean anything to anyone?), with a little airtight though experiment in which I asked the interviewer to imagine the sort of person he might be if all of the literature he’d read in his life were somehow excised from his mind, his mind and soul, and as the journalist contemplated that nuclear winter I sat back with a self-satisfied smile, saved again from facing the truth.”
I realize as I skim over these words, that I’ve given no indication as to who each character is, as to where in the plot they occur (or what the plot is at all, for that matter), and that seems fitting.
For while this book is haunting in that it is difficult to grasp, is disturbing…it is also certainly “not quickly forgotten”. While I may not remember the plotline in a way I can describe it to a person plucking it from my bookshelf and asking “What’s this about?” – I can remember the grace of the words and the feeling behind them. Visions such as these will haunt me:
“I clung to his waist, the wind caught his hair, we drove through the streets past the city’s otherworldly residents I’d come to know well, the haredim in their dusty black coats and hats, the mothers loading their gaggle of children whose clothes trailed hundreds of loose threads as if the children had been ripped unfinished from the loom, the pack of Yeshiva boys who slammed pas at a stoplight squinting as if newly let out of a cave, the old man stooped over his walker with the Filipino girl clutching the baggy elbow of his sweater, pulling a loose piece of yarn that she wrapped around her hand, unraveling him until his last words would be pulled out of him like a knot, him and her and the Arab sweeping the gutter, all of then unaware that we who sailed past them were only an apparition, ghosts more out of time than they.”
An Israeli widower attempts to reunite with a distant son. A writer in New York babysits a desk which becomes a magical talisman, a muse, until a foreign daughter comes to reclaim the desk as her birthright. A brother and sister, close as lovers, grow up from city to city, in apartments populated by antiques that their Israeli father, a Holocaust survivor trades in. What all these people have in common is that they live with the big haunting desk that takes up more than space.
The reader gets lost along the way trying to pick up all the threads but once I completed the book and reflected on its meanings I believe this effect is not wholly unintended. Indeed a major theme of this novel is loss, up- rootedness and the Jewish experience in the Diaspora. Indeed as the novel comes to an end, mysteries and tragedies are revealed but not all the loose ends are resolved.
Having read her last book, A History of Love, I was mildly disappointed. In that book, the characters were more fully realized and, as a reader, I cared more about them and the plot was easier to follow. Having said that, Great House is worth reading for its mysterious, haunting qualities.
There is a desk that figures prominently in the four stories here – a huge, almost monstrous thing with nineteen drawers of various sizes – but the desk isn't the point, is barely even the thread that connects the narratives. While you might try to figure out how these stories are going to fit together and where the desk will come into play, after a while you give up and realize that the plot lines may or may not converge neatly and it doesn't matter. Krauss is masterful at creating characters haunted by memory and loss and their stories are completely engrossing.
A young American would-be writer inherits the desk from the friend of a Chilean poet who disappears during the Pinochet regime; twenty-five years later, his daughter shows up to claim it and the writer finds herself adrift. An aging Israeli is mourning his wife and trying to understand his estranged son, a British judge. In London, a long-married academic learns of his wife's long-hidden past. And a young American girl falls in love with the Israeli son of a distant, controlling father, an antiques dealer trying to reclaim his father's possessions that were stolen by the Nazis. Not every one of these narrators owns the desk and the chain of possession isn't always clear. But Krauss carries you along on her luminous prose and deep understanding of lives not fully lived. And all does become clear in the end.
This is a tough novel, it requires guessing and work on your part, it's like a puzzle that somehow the reader has to put together. And for me, what makes it a great reading, is that you are not conscious of getting close to solving that puzzle, but when you turn the last page everything makes sense in a strange and singular way, like remembering your own memories, through flashes and blurred images.
Four seemingly unconnected stories in different times and places with only a "desk" in common, as if that desk is the only witness of the lives that cross its path, witness of sorrow, loneliness and loss. And, of course, of love. And as a lot of the characters that appear in the stories are writers or poets, I'd say this book also emanates love for literature and the art of composing in a very natural way.
A glimpse of the stories: a fifty year old writer regretting her chosen loneliness remembers a one night stand with a Chilean poet who later is murdered by Pinochet Regime. An old lawyer recently widowed struggles to communicate with one of his sons, with whom he's always felt estranged but whom he loves and hates deeply at the same time. An old writer who takes care of his sick wife discovers secrets from her past he isn't ready to digest. Two atypical brothers with a strange bond struggle trying not to disappoint their distant father.
The voices in the stories are poignant and evocative. I found myself rereading twice some paragraphs because of the beauty of some reflexions and a distinct force behind them. The writing style is sublime, the stories flow as in memories, there are no explicit facts or a lineal storyline, it's mostly feelings attached to past times which come like waves, they flow into your system and you finally forget it's a character talking, it could be your own conscience speaking.
I also think this is not a book for everybody and that it can become frustrating not knowing where all this rambling is leading, but if you let your mind free of constraint, you'll experience life in its core. Because that's what this book is about: life. And as I have read in some other reviews I wouldn't qualify this novel as oppressing or pessimistic, I'd say it's realistic. Won't we all have to deal with loss and frustration and death some time in our ives? How will our minds process those feelings? You've got the answer in this book. It's your choice to get it.
Krauss writes an interwoven novel of four different story lines of individuals and families who are inextricably bound together by a enormous desk with many drawers that bears a heavy history of its own, similar to the histories of those whose hands this desk has passed through. The people in the story are deeply affected by this desk in negative and positive ways, even after the desk has left their possession, and the mysteries and memories of previous owners echo in the deep recesses of these ominous drawers just waiting to be released.
This novel, although History of Love is still my favorite, does not disappoint. It is honest, beautiful and at times heartbreaking. It isn't just Krauss's ability to construct an intricate story the way a great craftsman would a building; it is also the way that her beautiful prose can resonate in the deepest caverns of your bones setting aflame some feeling that you have known that you have felt before but have never been able to put into words. It is haunting in the way that deja vu always is.
Great House, like The History of Love, contains some of the most heartfelt character development I've seen in novels. The observations of the human condition are spot-on and the characters just come alive in all their despairs and hopes. It is one of those books that remind you just how fragile and complex humanity is. The theme of loss is ever present in this novel--the loss of loved ones, of possessions, of the world you knew and the loss of something that might have never been at all. The desk, to those connected to it, represents some semblance of permanence as they grapple with how how to deal with loss and how to reassemble ourselves---a process I am sure we all can relate to.
I only had a few problems with the novel. Some places were kind of slow in certain storylines. I think she did a good job weaving the stories together but sometimes I got bored with a storyline or forgot something from another. I also felt like I still had a few questions after the novel that I didn't feel were addressed. I felt they were important so it kind of irked me. Another thing that was hard for me was that I felt like Krauss maintained the same tone throughout each story. I got a good sense of the characters and who they were but I never get a sense for the "voice" that was telling the story. I don't know if that makes sense but it does in my head.
One thing I really appreciated about this novel is that even though the storylines were bound together by this desk, these people were not strongly linked. Sometimes you read a novel where people were bound by a person or event and then you have five random people all coming together all linked by this one thing and it seems like it was just fate for them to find each other. I liked that there were brushings with people but they were sometimes far removed from the actual person. You'll see what I mean when you read it.
I'd recommend it to most people--especially those who already love Nicole Krauss or fans of her husband. If you haven't read anything by Nicole Krauss, I'd recommend you reading The History of Love first and then this one.