Book Review: "Great House" by Nicole Krauss

By Carolyn Williams

Staff Writer

Nicole Krauss impressed critics with the joyful energy she brought to the tragedy of her first novel, “The History of Love,” and now, with her latest book “Great House” she has achieved another triumph with an even sadder story.

The narration takes place in parts, the connections between them unraveling beautifully as the novel progresses. Quickly apparent, their most concrete tie becomes symbolized through a monstrous writing desk, possessed of nineteen drawers in total, one of them permanently locked.

We first meet Nadia, an introverted, New York-based writer who was custodian of the desk from her mid-twenties until her late-forties. Her narration is addressed to “Your honor,” although who that could be remains unknown. Given to her for temporary safekeeping by a friend of a friend, a Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky, the desk remains with Nadia through the intervening years after Varsky’s death at the hands of Pinochet’s police. Though she knows the desk is not permanently hers, Nadia writes each of her novels at the desk. When a young woman arrives, claiming it as her inheritance from her late father, Nadia’s life as she knows it is derailed.

The story then gains the interest of an Israeli man named Aaron devastated by the recent loss of his wife. He addresses his younger son, Dov, whom he has never been able to understand. The boy aspired to be a writer once, but abandoned the idea after it was shot down by his father. He instead decided to move to London, detaching from his family and only returning in time for his mother’s funeral. Aaron’s simultaneous rage and love, so powerful and so deeply felt in Krauss’s writing, bewilder him as he recalls his son’s whole life, retracing his steps, trying to figure out what he did wrong.

A refined professor of Romantic literature at Oxford relates the story of his wife, a writer named Lotte Berg, who for many years worked at a desk that terrified and disturbed him. A refugee from Nazi Germany, Lotte escaped but lost her entire family in the camps. Her husband always assumed it was this survivor’s guilt which underscored the secrecy between them throughout their married life. An envelope found at her writing desk reveals that nightmares of the Holocaust were not the only secret Lotte had kept.

A young American named Izzy, also studying at Oxford, tells of how, after encountering writer’s block in her graduate studies, she meets a pair of Israeli siblings, Yoav and Leah. They live in a house full of furniture belonging to their father, a renowned antiques dealer. The strange pair accept her into their lives, and though she falls in love with the brother, the lovers are ultimately separated by the sibling’s relationship to their controlling father, whose life goal has been to perfectly restore his own father’s office, ruthlessly tracking down each article looted from his childhood home during the Holocaust.

Though perhaps a slow start, “Great House” quickly becomes hard to put down. As the connections between the stories grow less opaque, the more Krauss’s characters and their individual (and shared) plights endear themselves to their readers, and the more we don’t want it to end. “Great House” is an elegantly crafted, serious novel and an exposing, thought-provoking read.

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