Book Review: In Print

Nicole Krauss

In Print

Great House

by Nicole Krauss
W.W. Norton, 289 pp., $24.95

There's such poetry in Nicole Krauss' prose it's hard to resist underlining huge swaths of text; I still have scraps of paper tacked to my office wall from her 2006 novel, the magisterial The History of Love.

Great House, which was nominated for a National Book Award in October, is a more somber thing. It follows four narratives with one connective strand: a large, many-drawered writing desk that is passed between hands throughout the novel. In the first section, the desk takes on mystical qualities for a New York-based writer who inherited it from a Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky; when she returns the desk to a stranger claiming to be Varksy's daughter, its sudden absence stunts her ability to write. In the second section, a grieving widower in Israel confronts his emotionally fragile son. In the third, another newly widowed man tries to make sense of the murky past of his dead wife, an experimental writer who fled Germany in a Kindertransport just before the war. And in the fourth storyline, set in London, an Oxford scholar falls in with a pair of dramatically isolated siblings (shades of Les Enfants Terribles) whose controlling father, an antiques dealer, has made finding the desk his life's work.

A book sunk in mystery, Great House is like a nesting egg that skips generations, with some riddles never to be solved, much as the narrators' efforts to crack the codes of their inscrutable loved ones almost always end in failure. Krauss charts the life cycle of love in alternating chapters – new love, lost love, and lovelessness. In the last, in which the long-single New York writer makes a pilgrimage to Israel to reclaim the desk, Krauss presents a brutalizing portrait of a middle-aged woman reawakening to desire to disastrous effect. It's the least pleasurable chapter but also the most potent in a book that is both challenging and – in its very best stretches – ravishing, too.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Nicole Krauss
The Year in Books
The Year in Books
'Freedom,' 'Finkler,' and the 'Kids' of America

Kimberley Jones, Jan. 7, 2011

Man Walks Into a Room
"Often enough in Man Walks Into a Room, you get a plot description and a lesson," writes Clay Smith of Nicole Krauss' beguiling and haunting debut novel, about a man who loses his memory and isn't particularly interested in getting it back.

Clay Smith, Aug. 23, 2002

More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by Kimberley Jones
Truly moving biopic of musical leviathan Leonard Bernstein

Dec. 8, 2023

We Have an Issue: “Free Wrapping Paper Since 1981”
We Have an Issue: “Free Wrapping Paper Since 1981”

Dec. 8, 2023


Nicole Krauss, Great House, The History of Love

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle