When I saw that ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss (which in my head rhymes, should it?) had made the Orange long list I went off and did some research on it and though ‘eurgh’. The reasons for this were thrice fold, first was the fact every review seemed to say it was a book about a desk (which didn’t fill me intrigue or hope), second was a mention that it jumped from strand to strand like one of my nemesis reads ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell and thirdly its scope seemed to wide. How could a book manage to cover the gaps of New York, London, Jerusalem, Paris, Nuremberg, Chile whilst also fitting in the subjects of holocaust, Alzheimer’s, incest and much more? It was going to be a brick of a book that I was going to really, really struggle with wasn’t it? Well I was wrong on both counts, as I discovered when it arrived in the post and I read it only pausing to catch my breath with a cup of tea now and then.
I was expecting that when ‘Great House’ arrived through my letter box it would make itself known with a loud thud that would leave a dent in the hall. Instead a much slimmer volume of 289 pages arrived leaving me slightly non-plussed, yet Nicole Krauss’s latest novel is a book where its size is extremely deceptive and has so much in its 289 pages that I already know I am going to be struggling really hard to convey just how much happens and just how clever this novel is in any form of ‘book thoughts’ I now type.
I have to address the thoughts I had read, prior to picking up the book itself, that this book evolves around a 19 drawer desk. The idea that any item of furniture could hold four very different stories across decades and continents both intrigued me and completely put me off in one go. Yet actually this is possible, every heirloom has a tale and so therefore does every antique. I personally couldn’t go as far as to say that ‘Great House’ is a book about a desk or that the desk is the lead character, in fact the desk gets a mere sentence in the first half of one of the books inner tales ‘True Kindness’.
What I would say is that Nicole Krauss has used a desk to draw, if you will excuse the pun, four compelling tales together – which in their own ways do weave in and out of each other anyway, well, sort of! Krauss only hints at how in each of the parts initial halves but in such a way it teased me to read on and see if I could grab the lose threads and for a fuller picture. This is a clever and compelling tool; a literary book where you find yourself turning the pages in need of finding out more.
So what are these stories? Well the first tells of a novelist Nadia, living in New York, and how she (back before her career really took off) came to be the owner, through a friend of a friend, of all the Chilean poet Daniel Varsky’s furniture including his desk, the desk that she then goes on to write her many novels on thereafter. She also spends a single night with Daniel, a night that stays with her long after as he sends postcards until suddenly they stop and she discovers he has been taken, arrested and tortured by Pinochet back in Chile. From there Daniel goes on to haunt her and when she receives a call asking for his furniture back Nadia begins to unravel and we are left on a cliff hanger as Nadia contemplates a huge change in her life which we will come back to later, this is the narrative jumping I feared would leave me cold, it hooked me in.
Next we find ourselves in Israel as a father talks internally to his son, a son who has returned from England where he is a judge for his mother’s funeral after leaving the family behind several years before. It’s a bitter and occasionally rather uncomfortable narrative looking at how parents don’t always love the children that they have, in fact sometimes it can be quite the opposite. From here we then move to England where the final two narrators, and in some ways pieces of Krauss’s carefully crafted puzzle, are based.
We have Arnold who is looking back on the life of his wife, another author, Lotte. A woman who always wanted her freedom to be hers and her past, she hails from 1930’s Germany, to remain a secret if at all possible – in fact she rarely mentions it in her work, interviews or personal conversations, even with her husband. Slowly secrets of hers are unlocked in stops and starts as her husband learns much more about her when her Alzheimer’s starts to reveal all as they grow old together. Finally there is Izzy who tells her tale of the relationship she has with brother Yoav Weisz, one which seemed doomed from the start with his domineering father George (and antique collector) and the unusually close relationship with his rather jealous sister Leah. You couldn’t get four more different stories and yet Krauss magically and, to put it frankly, effortlessly does make them connect.
How exactly? Well if I told you that you wouldn’t read the book now would you, and I am going to urge that you do so but it might have something to do with the desk! It also has a lot to do with doubt, what we pass on to others and how we move forward in life!
It’s interesting that I love the idea of books that tell completely different stories that have an underlying arch between them all, why do I therefore dread them at the same time, well because often they don’t work. ‘Great House’ works, in fact it works wonderfully. The characters Krauss creates all instantly lend themselves as storytellers who you want to listen to the narrations and memories of, several of them are writers so that could help but then again Aaron, who is one of the strongest narratives for his bitterness, doesn’t like writing. In fact he is very insular which only made his narrative all the more interesting for me. The writing is compelling and also lyrical with sparkles of humour in unlikely places. I was expecting a much more subdued book and while it’s not laugh out loud funny, it is quite sombre really, or an easy read it’s very readable too.
I am sure you can easily tell, from the amount I have already written, that I could go on and on about ‘Great House’. I will stop and simply say read it. It’s a clever and insightful novel, a tale with four tales to tell, and one that will stick with you once you have turned the final page. Not only is it incredible for all its subject matters and the characters but for the fact you might have just read a near perfect novel. 9.5/10
This book was kindly sent by the publishers.
So one of the books I was, if I am totally honest, rather fearful of has become one of my favourite reads of the year. It would be easy for me to know say ‘this should win the Orange’ but actually I am only 4/20 down, I can only hope the long list throws many more books like this in my direction. Books that get you fired up and excited about reading. I haven’t read either of her other novels and am now thinking I should… should I? Is she as an exciting author as this book promises? Has anyone else read ‘Great House’? I know it has received a mixed bag of reviews so would be interested in hearing more thoughts from you all, has anyone been as nervous/wary of it as I was?