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[336] Great House: A Novel – Nicole Krauss

” There are moments when a kind of clarity comes over you, and suddenly you can see through walls to another dimension that you’d forgotten or chosen to ignore in order to continue living with the various illusions that make life, particularly life with other people, possible. ”

Sure, the acclaimed author’s third novel does real like many illusions strung together. Great House is made up of four stories that Krauss fails to create an intertwining link, or is the loose structure a device? The frame of of the novel is a gargantuan writing desk, which appears at various points in four people’s lives. A reclusive American novelist has been writing at the desk she inherited from a young Chilean-Jewish poet, who disappeared at the hands of Pinochet’s secret police. One day a girl named Leah Weisz claiming to be the poet’s daughter arrives in New York to claim the desk, sending the writer’s life reeling.

I hadn’t had more than three or four relationships, I already knew that each time the thrill of telling another the story of yourself wore off a little more, each time you threw yourself into it a little less, and grew more distrustful of an intimacy that always, in the end, failed to pass into true understanding. [134]

Despite the sequence of the stories, the desk has spent decades in Europe before reaching America in the 1970s. It may have belonged to Federico Garcia Lorca, poet and dramatist executed by Fascists in 1936, when the Spanish Civil War began. In 1944, the desk (or is it the same desk?) stood in Weisz’s father’s study in Budapest on a night, just before the first stone shattered his window. After the war, in Jerusalem, an antiques dealer hunts furniture looted from Jewish homes by the Nazis. He scours the world for the fragments to reassemble the study’s every element, but the desk eludes him, and he and his children, on whom he exercises tight control over the mission, live at the edges of its absence—until his daughter traces it in Nadia’s apartment in New York.

Before crossing the Atlantic, for almost 40 years, the desk was in England, where a woman, of Polish descent, exhumes the memories she can’t speak except through violent stories she penned. During her waning years, her husband discovers among her papers a lock of hair that unravels a terrible secret.

Terrible things befall people, but not all are destroyed. Why is it that something that destroys one doesn’t destroy another? [237]

Great House is about memory, false and unreliable. That the narratives don’t neatly snap together somehow serves to illustrate this point. Each of the narrators lives in doubt, even in regret, as the absence of the desk imbues them with an importance, as well as a sense of loss, that inspires careful attention of their lives. Reading becomes very tedious when the profound, digressive and indulgent self-examination isn’t attached to the plot. What purports to have different narrators actually has the same voice, and most absurdly, the same use of similes and metaphors. Voices are not convincing. I cannot help thinking that maybe all that effort put into understanding the interconnections between the narrators is unnecessary, because the whole purpose of the overworked novel is to shine on that state of perpetual regret of the people who long for a place they only know existed in the mausoleum of memory, like the empty drawer of the desk. The writing is as poetic as it is overworked and unfocused.

288 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]
Great House is shortlisted for Independent Literary Awards: Literary Fiction.

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21 Responses

  1. I’ve always wanted to read her, and feeling like I’m missing out, but perhaps this isn’t the place to start.

    • Almost everyone, I mean all my friends and book bloggers, say they enjoy The History of Love better. It looks like I’m in for a good treat after reading Great House. 🙂

  2. the plot device sounds like “The Red Violin,” instead this is a desk.

  3. After reading The History of Love, I thought I’d love this book as well. I just couldn’t connect with the characters–they all were self absorbed and miserable. Piecing together the characters through “the desk” kept my mind busy, but all I could feel was sorry for each and every character that experienced some kind of loss and emptiness. A depressing novel.

    • It’s indeed very depressing, and each of the narrators has a very myopic view. The book reads like a series of self-examination, very regretful and rueful. Sometimes I find myself losing the focus on the desk.

  4. Thanks for the honest review – it still sounds interesting to me and I will keep and eye out for it!

  5. The novel genre is getting novel: sometimes it works; at other times it does not.

    • One of my friends took a huge swipe of the book. He says just because she is writing a book of short stories, fitting them together Tetris-like, and calling it a novel doesn’t make the book a novel. The different narratives fit in loosely at best. What bothers me the most is that feeling not not having a solid grap in the importance of the connection.

  6. Loved your honest review! I didn’t like The History of Love and so I wasn’t sure if would enjoy this new one, and after reading your post, I don’t think I will. Seems to me that Krauss has a tendency to overwork things, in spite of her way with words. Thanks!

    • You’re one of the very few who don’t like The History of Love. I’m still open to reading her, and maybe it’s better than I have read Great House first.

  7. I think I agree with many of the things you say here, namely that the narratives don’t interlock as tightly as one might hope. That said, I always find Krauss’s writing a joy to read, so I’ll pretty much read anything she writes!

  8. […] [336] Great House: A Novel – Nicole Krauss […]

  9. Thanks for the post. I LOVED The History of Love, but have browsed this several times and not felt compelled to read it. I appreciate the time you put into writing your review!

    • I do have lost interest on a few occasions because the narrators can be rambling on and on. I put it down and picked up another book before I can read on.

  10. You are spot on. There was no clear voice at any given time. I didn’t feel that the stories connected enough to hold my attention. So much of it seems unfinished and lacking polish.

    However, I will say this.. after re-reading the last third of the book, I do believe that some of what I criticized above was intentionally done by the author as sort of a testament that memory is not fail proof, but it didn’t work.. at least not in my opinion.

    • The stories don’t hold my attention, and at times I just totally lost interest, especially the Israeli lawyer’s part. I feel most sympathetic of Nadia, the writer who inherited the desk from the Chilean-Jewish poet. As to the loosely connected narratives, I read the author’s interview, in which she said that during the writing of the book she was distracted, having a difficult time to focus on the writing. At the end of the book, I just can’t help wondering if the book was written in a way that readers are supposed to be confused.

  11. Sounds like this is a good one for me to check out from the library rather than purchasing it for my home library.

  12. I have just finished The History of Love and it sounds very similar – beautiful writing and characters but doesn’t all come together well. Thanks for your honest review, one that still encourages me to read it at some stage.

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