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Great House: A Novel Hardcover – October 5, 2010
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2010: In each of the short stories that nest like rooms in Nicole Krauss's Great House looms a tremendous desk. It may have belonged to Federico García Lorca, the great poet and dramatist who was one of thousands executed by Fascists in 1936, when the Spanish Civil War began. We know that the desk stood in Weisz's father's study in Budapest on a night in 1944, when the first stone shattered their window. After the war, Weisz hunts furniture looted from Jewish homes by the Nazis. He scours the world for the fragments to reassemble that study's every element, but the desk eludes him, and he and his children live at the edges of its absence. Meanwhile, it spends a few decades in an attic in England, where a woman exhumes the memories she can't speak except through violent stories. She gives the desk to the young Chilean-Jewish poet Daniel Varsky, who takes it to New York and passes it on (before he returns to Chile and disappears under Pinochet) to Nadia, who writes seven novels on it before Varsky's daughter calls to claim it. Crossing decades and continents, the stories of Great House narrate feeling more than fact. Krauss's characters inhabit "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," and a desk whose multitude of drawers becomes a mausoleum of memory. --Mari Malcolm
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This stunning work showcases Krauss's consistent talent. The novel consists of four stories divided among eight chapters, all touching on themes of loss and recovery, and anchored to a massive writing desk that resurfaces among numerous households, much to the bewilderment and existential tension of those in its orbit, among them 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. Much like in Krauss's The History of Love, the sharply etched characters seem at first arbitrarily linked across time and space, but Krauss pulls together the disparate elements, settings, characters, and fragile connective tissue to form a formidable and haunting mosaic of loss and profound sorrow.
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The novel is similar to The History of Love in that several families are involved and connected in ways that the reader can't ascertain right away. Sometimes those threads are loose and fragile and not so obvious. There's a middle aged writer in New York City, a Jewish father in Jerusalem who tells a story of his wife and sons, Weisz and his children, and a professor in England who's married to a Holocaust refugee with a secret. There's also a young American student who becomes involved with Yoav, Weisz's son. Throughout the book, the writer from New York is pleading her case before a judge although I never could figure out just exactly what she did.
Basically, the novel includes several stories of people who live in different countries and in different generations, and yet there's something that looms large in most of their lives, a huge desk that belonged to Weisz's father. When the book opens, it's in the apartment of the writer in New York City, but by this time, the desk has already had quite a history. When the book ends, the desk that was once in Budapest is in a warehouse in New York, and the woman who once owned it is actually in Jerusalem searching for it. She has a number of adventures while there, including hitting someone with her car.
The stories are all powerful, and they draw the reader in with their "truthfulness." The people have periods of hopefulness, pretty much always followed by sadness,disappointment,or disillusionment. Despite outward appearances of normalcy, they all have their doubts, insecurities, sorrows, and memories. Ah yes, especially their memories. Is memory all that remains? Is it accurate? Can it be trusted? Is that what shapes and defines a person? Was Lotte the woman, wife, and writer she was because of the loss of her parents, the birth of her son, or what??? Why was Dov always so unhappy and unreachable? And just who was Daniel Varsky?
There are several passages that demonstrate the beauty and truthfulness of the book, but one in particular continues to resonate with me. Mrs. Fiske is talking to Arthur, and she's verbalizing what every mother realizes at some point. "Only later did I come to understand that to be a mother is to be an illusion. No matter how vigilant, in the end a mother can't protect her child--not from pain, or horror, or the nightmare of violent, from sealed trains moving rapidly in the wrong direction, the depravity of strangers, trapdoors, abysses, fires, cars in the rain, from chance."
Although most of the characters are Jewish and there is a lot of Jewish symbolism throughout the book, any person can identify with the human condition so eloquently described by Krauss.I keep asking myself how someone so young can know so much, the "so much" referring to the secrets of a person's psyche and soul...and even the secrets of the dead. "The secrets of the dead have a viral quality, and find a way to keep themselves alive in another host."
Great House is not a quick easy read. It's not romantic or funny or upbeat. However, it's guaranteed to make you think and to wonder about life and death and families and the purpose of it all.
A desk seems to be the only consistent thread, described "...like some sort of grotesque, threatening monster..." its 19 randomly placed and sized drawers standing in for the characters of the story. There is one locked drawer whose contents remains a mystery, and its character a mystical puppeteer who moves the desk from attic to living room to warehouse in route to that character's final purpose.
Don't worry: You will finish Great House. Krauss, like the locked drawer, propels you inescapably along until you discover the secret of the desk. The desk: A metaphor for the Great House, which in turn is a metaphor itself.