Great House by Nicole Krauss
For 25 years, a well-known, reclusive American novelist has been writing at a wooden desk that she inherited from a young poet who disappeared under Pinochet’s regime in Chile. One day, she is contacted by a young woman claiming to be the daughter of the Chilean poet who asks after the desk. “I’d like to have it,” she says.
An aging man sees his wife’s memories begin to slip away like paper in the breeze and when he finds a secret hidden in her desk of many drawers, he begins to question whether he in fact has ever known her at all.
A German antiques dealer works tirelessly across his lifetime to reassemble a mysterious collection of items – with one more elusive than any other.
The subtle arrangement of characters and their stories within Great House is its great strength, overlapping in such subtle ways as to continuously surprise you with the depth of your own emotional involvement. The wooden desk, with its nineteen drawers (one permanently locked) and its mysterious history, is the quiet central character that it is the knot that ties all the others together. “So, Great House is really a novel about a desk?” you ask. “C’mon,” I say, “Pay attention.”
The desk of many drawers is ultimately what brings all the storylines fatefully crashing together, but the real stars are of course the human characters. It is a novel about a writer, so attached to her past that she cannot see the future. A man who unconditionally loves his wife, even as her memory fades and her secrets emerge. A family torn apart by anger and misunderstanding, yet hanging together by the thinest of familial bonds. An antiques dealer who sacrifices those who love him most in a lifelong attempt to reassemble a collection that has far-reaching meaning for him. The four storylines at first seem unconnected, of course, but eventually they emerge through the fog to become the multiple elements of one larger story.
What can I say, this book was right in my wheelhouse. (The easiest way to get your novel onto a Catapult Notable list is to feature multiple, intertwining narratives. FYI.) In that regard Krauss is more Colum McCann than David Mitchell – never leading the reader through a darkened labyrinth, she always leaves the lights on and you know that she has a firm grip on your hand. She is an immensely skilled writer – I found I could escape into the words of her creation with ease. The subtle worlds she creates are not unlike our own, in that they are normal, banal even, but always with a stark reality to them that is comforting and appealing. Yet even within that reality, there is always an element of the mysterious – that idea that the answers we seek are just around the next corner.
I’ll leave things with a bit from my personal favorite storyline, that of Arthur Bender and his wife Lotte Berg:
The doorbell rang. We looked up at each other. It was rare for anyone to visit us unannounced. Lotte put her book down in her lap. I went to the door. A young man was standing there holding a briefcase. It’s possible that the moment before I opened the door he had extinguished his cigarette, because I thought I saw a trail of smoke slip out of the corner of his mouth. Then again, it could have been just his breath in the cold. For a minute I thought it was one of my students – they all shared a certain knowing look, as if they were trying to smuggle something in or out of an unnamed country. There was a car waiting by the curb, the motor still running, and he glanced back at it. Someone – man or woman, I couldn’t say – was hunched over the steering wheel. Is Lotte Berg home? he asked.