Book Review: In Print
Reviewed by Kimberley Jones, Fri., Dec. 10, 2010
Great Houseby 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.