Great House

As I started to read Nicole Krauss's third novel, Great House, it occurred to me that I 'd never actually read the summary of what the book in my hands was about, nor did I feel a need to do so. Come to think of it, I had *never* read a summary for a book by Krauss, even though I've read all three of her novels. And do you know why? Because Nicole Krauss is one of those authors who could publish a grocery list and I will read it without any hesitation whatsoever. (To be fair, I'd recognize it as a grocery list and not praise it for being "meta" or anything, but I'd still read it.) There are few living authors who get such unwavering approval from me, but I know that within Krauss's work, I will be transported by exquisite language to a scene of such vivid detail and heartbreaking emotion that I will feel as though I have learned some great truth about humankind.
I never wanted Great House to end. It was one of those books that you want to savor, so you try and trick yourself by keeping it in another room so you won't immediately rush to it... but it's useless, because all you can do is think about the story being told. The table of contents gives you a good idea of the book's make-up: it is comprised of four separate threads of stories, each of which have a go in part one and part two. The reader is well aware that things will all tie together somehow, but it's the journey to that point which makes everything worthwhile. Each story deals with personal loss, motivation, and the weight of memory. One part features a writer who, in her youth, was entrusted with the desk of a friend of a friend, a poet who then was killed in Chile under Pinochet's regime; years pass and the writer feels as though her very being forms itself to the desk, until one day she receives a phone call from the poet's daughter, asking if she might claim her father's desk. Another thread is told from the perspective of an older man who is coping with the loss of his wife and trying to understand his younger son, with whom he has always had a troubled relationship. The third part focuses on another older man, this one an academic, who has a solitary and secretive wife with her own troubled past, and he comes to realize that she has secrets much larger than he had ever suspected. The final section is told from the perspective of a young American woman at Oxford who embarks upon a romance with young Israeli who lives with his sister; the young American gradually comes to understand these solitary siblings who feel controlled by their frequently-absent yet incredibly domineering father.

All four storylines are vaguely connected by a desk that exerts a pull over those who come in contact with it. I found it fascinating that the article which ties things together is so large... it's not like we're talking about a bracelet that can change hands with ease. A desk (particularly this desk, which is giant and contains many drawers) is something so substantial... a large and weighty reminder of time and owners now gone. I'm not going to give it the plot any other summary than that because that's all you really need. Trust in the genius of Krauss to take you somewhere fascinating. The story travels across the world and, unsurprisingly given Krauss's background, includes very strong elements of Jewish history and culture. Many of the characters in this novel are writers, poets, or academics... most of the characters are heavily invested in careers or studies that focus on words. It's always interesting to see a writer discuss writing through a character... it makes for fascinating observations and you wonder which the author shares (and then you realize that an author can have contradictory feelings about writing at the same time, so perhaps she shares them all). I was pleased to see a brief mention of Brodsky (as I recently learned that Krauss worked with Joseph Brodsky at the end of his life) and hardly a page goes by that I didn't mark for some turn of phrase or sentence that struck me by its insight or beauty. Normally, I'm a person who needs a specific plot or arc to a story, but halfway through this, I wasn't quite sure where we were headed and yet I was happy to float along, carried wherever Krauss saw fit to take me.

If you haven't read The History of Love, then you're missing out. Great House is a fantastic follow-up and further proof that Krauss is one of the best young writers around. Don't try too hard to figure out where the title comes from, as Krauss will let you know in her own good time. In fact, don't even try too hard to figure out all the connections... just enjoy the story as it plays out and appreciate the dawning moments of realization as you connect the dots... a feeling sadly absent in literature that isn't on the mystery shelves. From cover to cover, Great House is magnificent and I certainly hope that it gets the recognition it rightly deserves.

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