Wednesday, November 10, 2010

GREAT HOUSE by Nicole Krauss

This was not a book that I couldn't wait to get back to. On the other hand, whenever I picked it up I was mesmerized—by the prose and the characters, and the desk that semi-binds the various narrators together. The book has two halves, each of which covers four different lives. The second-half stories pick up where their first halves left off, and the intricacies of their connections to one another become more clear, though not ever crystal clear, and the varying time slices are a little confusing. The desk is central really to only two of the stories. Nadia never really owns it but houses it for many years for Daniel Varsky, who is tortured and killed in Chile and therefore never coming back for it. A young woman who is purportedly his daughter comes to claim it, and Nadia is devastated after giving it up. She is a writer and now questions the quality of everything she has written, as the desk has become an anchor to herself and her craft. Varsky had received the desk from Lotte Berg, another writer, whose husband now mourns her passing and reflects back on the desk, a gift that once loomed in their house, making him jealous of his wife's secret past. Then there's Weisz, who wants to find the desk, which originally belonged to his father, who died in the Holocaust. For those who freely give up the desk, it carries no particular weight. For those who have it wrenched from them (Nadia and Weisz), the loss is far greater than that of a piece of furniture, and they embark on separate quests to retrieve it and of course the missing pieces of themselves. There are no happy characters in this book. A few are wistful at best—Isabel, returning to her lover, and Aaron, the character you'll love to hate, reluctantly opening himself to a reconnection with his estranged son, though perhaps too late. And speaking of missing pieces, reading this book is a little like finishing a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces missing—frustrating and incomplete. I found myself futilely rereading sections for clues that I might have missed.


Cipriano said...

What a terrific review -- I feel very similar about this book, having just read it in January. I do not mind a certain amount of... you know, literary unraveling or re-reading to establish a thread now and then -- but one thing I do not appreciate is the kind of seemingly deliberate obfuscation that I found not only in Great House, but also in Man Walks Into A Room and The History of Love.
Why have I read her three times, then?
Because I am aware that there is a real gifted writer at work here -- but I keep hoping that she will be easier on me next time around.
With Great House I was left with that sort of feeling you get when you read what you know to be a great poem, but are still left wondering if you really got it!

Patti's Pages said...

I spoke briefly with the author at a book festival, and she told me that she intentionally did not tie up all loose ends. Thanks for commenting!