Nicole Krauss blossomed onto the literary scene in 2005 with the publication of her first novel, THE HISTORY OF LOVE. Popular, critically acclaimed and short-listed for a number of prestigious prizes, it poised her as a young author to watch. It's been five years since then, and Krauss is back with GREAT HOUSE --- a series of stories linked, on one level, by common themes, and on a much more prosaic level, by a single piece of furniture.
"GREAT HOUSE is solidly and carefully constructed, but Krauss still gives her characters room to breathe, exhibit genuine emotion, and live."
One of its owners, Nadia, describes the desk's appearance and its significance: "Nineteen drawers of varying size, some below the desktop and some above, whose mundane occupations (stamps here, paper clips there) hid a far more complex design, the blueprint of the mind formed over tens of thousands of days of thinking while staring at them, as if they held the conclusion to a stubborn sentence, the culminating phrase, the radical break from everything I had ever written that would at last lead to the book I had always wanted, and always failed, to write. Those drawers represented a singular logic deeply embedded, a pattern of consciousness that could be articulated in no other way but their precise number and arrangement. Or am I making too much of it?"
Nadia, who has written seven novels while sitting at the desk, came into possession of it when she was still quite a young woman, looking to furnish an apartment in the wake of a recent breakup. A friend connects her to a Chilean-Jewish poet, Daniel Varsky, who is about to depart the country and return to Chile. He agrees to leave all his furniture --- including the desk --- with Nadia on what becomes a permanent loan. Shortly after his return to South America, Varsky is tortured and killed by General Pinochet's army. Despite the sorrowful story of how the desk came to her in the first place, Nadia had never really thought that the desk had any sort of symbolic or actual resonance in her life. That is, until Varsky's daughter shows up at her doorstep, interested in reclaiming one concrete possession of the father she never knew. When the desk is gone, so is Nadia's will to write and her confidence in herself as a writer.
Nadia's story is but the first of a series of interconnected tales, all of which touch on the desk's evolving ownership and also on its --- and its owners --- legacy of loss and leaving. There's an elderly man in Israel coping with the loss of his wife and the bitter disappointment of his children, and there's a Hungarian antiques dealer searching in vain for all the furniture stolen by the Nazis from his childhood home in Budapest.
The desk unifies these stories, of course, but so do the themes of loss, leaving, memory and regret. The novel is divided into two sets of four stories, each of which tells one-half of a character's particular narrative. Like the desk itself, some of the drawers might seem messy or disorganized or even locked at first. Reading Krauss's book, however, seeing how these seemingly unconnected tales actually hang together in surprisingly powerful ways, is like opening those drawers and discovering that not only is there a well-crafted filing system, not only is everything in its right place, but there are also hidden surprises and secret drawers we never even expected. GREAT HOUSE is solidly and carefully constructed, but Krauss still gives her characters room to breathe, exhibit genuine emotion, and live.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011