Great House by Nicole Krauss
This novel is all about a desk, or rather about all the various people who have possessed this particular, very special and imposing piece of furniture. In fact, it practically had a life of its own. From the library of a Jew in Hungary during the Nazi occupation or in the hands of a Chilean poet caught up in Pinochet’s reign of terror. From the bright living room of a writer in New York, or in a dark London attic of a woman with an even darker secret, or closed up in Jerusalem as a relic of the past. In all its incarnations, this novel investigates the effect this desk has on each of the people who have used it or lived with it, through a mosaic of stories.
However, to say that this book is only about a desk and its owners is only reducing this novel to its lowest common denominator. What’s more, to call any of these people “owners” of this desk is probably a gross inaccuracy. This desk is an imposing one, with many strangely sized and irregular drawers, and in fact, could be a metaphor for the lives that these people live. Some people leave most of these drawers empty, others fill every drawer with mementos and knickknacks, others only use a few of the drawers and only for the most mundane of office equipment. One person even locks one of the drawers with a heavy secret, which they later don’t even remember is there. In this way, although the desk is the same object for all these people, it is still different things to each of them. Moreover, it becomes a symbol of the particular person using it and thereby becomes a legacy to those who inherit it from them. In this, Krauss is actually telling us something far deeper than simply an historical account of a piece of furniture, but rather is a study of how people deal with the difficulties of life, and how our actions pass on to others.
What made this book so intriguing was that this is a very complicated story to tell, as well as an ambitious one, as this story spans easily 80 years. But Nicole Krauss never seems to worry about that and from the outset, tackles each story and stage of the journey as if it was the only one she was telling. As each tale unwinds, bit by bit, we feel like we’ve been immersed in the lives of these people and how the desk became part of their lives – or how it left it. What’s even more fascinating is how these people were still drawn to this desk even after it had been given over or lost to another owner. And although Krauss never gives us chapter headings, there is never any confusion regarding where we are and who we are with. This is certainly a testament to Krauss’ skill as a writer, and a prime example of literary fiction at its best.
In fact, the language Krauss uses here is deceptively simple and easy, while still being effectively rich with its undertones. For instance, the book opens with a woman who is apparently trying to tell a courtroom about how she got this desk and how it was taken from her. It doesn’t matter that we only hear this woman and no one else in the court; that is simply the voice Krauss has chosen to use for her. Other characters get different voices and points of view. Some speak directly to the reader, others speak only to other characters, and still others are observed and described in third person. It is because of this mixture of points of view combined with the different places and eras that it spans, that many reviewers of this book have called it a collection of short stories. While this isn’t totally inaccurate, these different tales are far more connected than that classification would infer. That would mean: individual stories, each using separate sets of characters, with each one told as a whole piece of writing from beginning to end before moving onto the next one. While Krauss does do this here in several instances, we also revisit some sets of characters more than once. One of the best things about this book is how it uses this revisiting of characters, which unfortunately, is something I can’t fully reveal here, as it might ruin the ending.
However, what I can reveal is that this book is extremely special and engrossing from start to finish. We feel these characters are totally real, almost touchable and that Krauss has special affection for each and every one of them. This comes over to the reader so perfectly that it becomes infectious and once you start reading, you’ll probably not want to put it down. Moreover, although the subject matter isn’t always the most pleasant, even when humorous things happen, this is a very smooth read. Because of this, I cannot recommend this book more highly than to give it five stars out of five.